The film's opening shots speak volumes. A camera records a rainy drive through Chicago as windshield wipers lazily lick away a light drizzle to reveal the downtown skyscrapers and traffic, and everything is doused in gray. Wilco's iconic singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy sings, "What was I thinking when I let go of you," as the credits role.
Gray is the perfect color to represent Wilco on the opening shots of "I'm Trying to Break Your Heart." Nothing in this superb Americana band is black or white. The delicately crafted music, filled with wondering, wandering and soul, is meant to be taken for what it is -- it's meant to inspire, to make you think, but more than anything, it's meant to make you feel.
When filmmaker Sam Jones wanted to document a real American band -- and the behind-the-scenes footage from recording an important album that will mark its place in history -- he chose Chicago-based rockers Wilco. (Go to www.wilcofilm.com to get sneak peeks. Jones hopes the film will be out this summer.) Wilco's place in this modern world always seems to be teetering on the brink of ruin, yet the band is also one of the most poetic voices we have to reflect our times -- it is exactly what all great bands should be.
For Wilco, however, putting down a finished product on a demo is quite different than having something put down on film.
"I've got mixed emotions [about the film]," says Wilco's bassist and original member, John Stirratt. "He's [Jones] become a great friend, but it's a year that I would not want recorded. It certainly was an interesting year, but I'm not thrilled with it."
Indeed, it was a tough year for Wilco. Not only did the band find itself in conflict with its label, but it also lost two longtime members -- drummer Ken Coomer was let go, and guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett left last summer. Add to all that drama a camera crew that filmed practically their every move for an entire year -- the tedious recording sessions, the inner-band tensions, the live performances -- and it would be enough to try even the saintliest of saints' patience.
"We tried, but you can't be completely natural," says Stirratt. "I don't think, 'Hey, that's how we are,' because having seven guys walking around you all the time is not natural."
As is stated in the opening lines of "I'm Trying to Break Your Heart" -- dubbed so for the band's opening track on the exceedingly brilliant new album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," to be released April 23 -- "There are two kinds of potential. There's artistic potential, which is, I think for them, unlimited. And there is commercial potential, which is really quite mysterious." Wilco may be one of the so-called lucky few that has managed to walk that fine line for a long time, but even they feel the strains of having to produce hits. The band is undoubtedly groundbreaking and talented -- Tweedy's former band, Uncle Tupelo, forged the alt-country movement -- and Wilco's steadfast history of excellent songwriting, musicianship and underground appeal has cemented its status among music geeks as living gods.
But that didn't stop Warner/Reprise from putting on the squeeze.
"They weren't really specific. They weren't able to talk on musical terms with us," says Stirratt of Wilco's relationship with his former label. "The last two records, they required things. On ['99's] "Summer Teeth" they'd want another track -- another track that'd work for radio. We'd be like, 'You want more? Cool. We'll give you another song.'
"Basically, it came back to us and they wanted changes [on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"] and just because [of] how the record was put together, it wasn't gonna happen."
For a short period of time, "Yankee" was on hold, the future of its release in limbo. Reprise and Wilco did work out a deal -- the band bought back the material for a reported 50 grand, and started label shopping and streaming "Yankee" over Wilco's website, which inevitably leaked onto some file servers.
It didn't take long for them to get snatched up. Nonesuch Records is the new home -- oddly enough, it's also under the Warner family's umbrella. But practically everyone who was a Wilco fan has heard part -- or all -- of "Yankee" before Wilco even had a new home; as far as Wilco fans go though, it shouldn't affect the album's sales at all. If nothing else, it built up the hype for the new record.
And as for those record execs who didn't like "Yankee?" For anyone still left wondering, it is a staggering piece of work. Jones picked the right time to film, because it is an album in the vein of an "Exile on Main Street" or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It's raw and emotional, crescendos to new heights and then drops you right on your ass. Tweedy's songwriting is, as always, poignant; the song-crafting is nothing short of genius. Wilco is not afraid to experiment with different sounds and instrumental combos, at times sounding like breaking glass, at others like a speakeasy's Saturday night party. Tracks meld into one another perfectly, making the album a story unto itself.
It's no surprise, then, that one of rock's greatest hopes nails the art of rock & roll's heart and soul in a single quip.
"You can spend a certain amount of time crafting something," says Tweedy in one of the film's shots. "Then you just have to trust the fact that it's better if it's played with passion than if it just sounds perfect and it's played with none of those things."
This article originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.