Only Wilco could come out smelling so pretty. Possibly the world's most critically adored underdog, the band has been working towards a masterpiece for years. In 1996, the double album Being There showed that Jeff Tweedy and his band were as good as they were prolific, casting off sepia-toned, semi-twang rock gems perfect for a tiny patch of dry grass in the middle of the urban bustle.
Preparing for their fourth album in 2002, however, things seemed to go south. Wilco was given $85,000 and total creative control, but when major label brass were confused by the sprawling, atmospheric wasteland that was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they refused to put it out. So David reared back and hurled that little stone: Wilco successfully campaigned for Warner Brothers to let them out of their contract; they leaked some of the album onto the Internet to garner a buzz; a 30-label, seven-figure bidding war over the album ensued; Wilco had the last laugh.
It was a trying time for the band-during the recording process, frontman Jeff Tweedy and songwriting partner Jay Bennett clashed, and Bennett was fired. There in the middle of all the the business and personal drama and the creation of what many critics called "The Best Album of 2002" was a guy with a camera. Sam Jones, an accomplished photographer (Vanity Fair, GQ), was making his first film-a documentary of a band he loved. Here's what Jones said about making I Am Trying to Break Your Heart:
CityBeat: How did you get the gig?
Sam Jones: I wrote them a letter.
Did you think they would even respond?
Wilco, they're not a huge band, so I expected at least a letter back saying "No" or "Yes" or whatever.
To me, they embody the spirit of what being a band is, which doesn't exist that much anymore. I started thinking, Well, what bands now, during my time, are making vital music that's going to be important 30 or 40 years from now? And I think they're one of those bands.
What was your goal for the film?
To follow the band through all the stages of making a record and what goes into putting it out and dealing with the record company-all aspects of taking a song from its first writing on an acoustic guitar in a living room to seeing that song put on a record, put out and played on a stage on tour. With Summerteeth I felt Wilco were at the top of their game. It would be like if you were around after Give em Enough Rope. It's like, "Whoa, now's the time to be around The Clash-they're really happening right now. They're not even thinking about it. They're just doing it.' People say I stumbled into something or that I got lucky, but I planned all the time on following the album on all the twists and turns that it took. And I knew one of the scenarios could've been that the record company hated it or it could've turned into a big hit and they became huge.
Did you ever feel uncomfortable when Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy were fighting?
Not really. The camera just became this piece of equipment that I had, but it didn't really register to them as imagery, because they never saw [any footage before the finished product]. I just felt like it was their job to tell me to leave the room if they wanted privacy.
Do you feel you were successful?
By the time you walk out of the film-even if you don't know much about music-you get a sense of what it is to be an artist and how different it is to be in the business of selling records.... The two aren't related at all, really. There's nothing that you can know about selling that should get into your head about how to write a song and vice versa.
Did your emotions get involved when the record label refused to put it out?
It was definitely a surprise... but I think that anyone in the music industry knows that people get it wrong all the time. It wasn't like, "Oh my god, I'm going to side with the band and this is a bad, evil record company." It was more like, "Oh yeah, of course they don't get it. What losers."Wilco performs at Street Scene on Sept. 7. $40. 619-220-8497.