I sometimes wonder why so many hardworking bands, in Denver and everywhere else in the world, continue to regard the acquisition of a major-label contract as the singular goal of their musical careers. Especially after all we've heard: the consequences of a once-sprawling universe of imprints consolidated into only five; the horror stories of talented (and, yes, not-so-talented) artists locked into stultifying contracts; the repeated warnings from musicians such as Aimee Mann, Michelle Shocked, Chuck D, Courtney Love -- heck, even poor little disfigured Michael Jackson -- who tell us over and over again that majors can be wicked and that the independent route is the one most likely to reap the most satisfying rewards, at least in a creative sense. (Girls Against Boys frontman Scott McCloud chimes in on his band's bout with the now-obsolete Geffen Records in "Lapse of Luxury.")
My question isn't a new one, of course: The art-versus-big-business debate is as old as the Medici family, and the responses it has spawned in all mediums, from film to music to painting, suggest that maybe this conflict actually plays some constructive and necessary part in the collective creative process. Artists need something to rail against, the theory goes; we just wish so many truly talented people didn't have to go through so much merde to find that out. And surely we lose a lot of great stuff along the way.
In I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a new documentary film about Wilco, director/photographer Sam Jones throws his two cents into the pro-indie argument, in 16mm black-and-white form. Filmed on the road and in the studio during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Chicago-based band's current disc, the lo-fi affair chronicles a tumultuous year in Wilco's history, one that saw the outing of longtime bandmember Jay Bennett and plenty of other trouble for enigmatic, affected figurehead Jeff Tweedy. Bennett and Tweedy's interpersonal drama is a focus of the film, as are the day-to-day rituals and rigors of a successful band on tour. (The genuinely shy Tweedy is harangued by fans at every turn and, on one occasion, implored to sign their naked asses.)
Beyond the human challenges, though, Jones (working with a mostly volunteer crew) captures Wilco in a kind of creative conundrum, dealing with the rejection of Yankee by longtime label Reprise Records, which refuses to release it without major revisions. Tweedy's reaction to Reprise's dismissal of the recording -- which he seems to regard as his best yet -- is alternately angry, meek, confused and, ultimately, defiant. He declines to make changes, walking away from the company instead -- a move that put Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's release in limbo. (Of course, as one of the most reliably successful acts to come out of the post-Uncle Tupelo/Minneapolis-roots-rock movement, Wilco didn't really need to worry whether the album would find a home.) Before officially inking with the artist-friendly Bar/None Records, though, the band released the complete album for free download through its Web site, wilcoweb.com.
And it turns out that Tweedy and company were right to stick it out. Yankee is a fine piece of work, one that's neither too poppy nor too weird for longtime fans -- who were weaned on the band's more countrified leanings -- to accept, as Reprise had feared. Reception in the press has been warm (as seems to always be the case with Wilco, a critics' darling if ever there was one), and the album continues to sell well months after its release, a true feat during such a tepid time for record sales.
During the course of the shortish film, we not only see the kind of intimate, non-airbrushed moments that rockumentaries are uniquely able to deliver -- Tweedy vomiting, Bennett being almost painfully loud and obnoxious -- but we also get a live-action version of the now-familiar "artist's struggle" story. At its best moments, the movie feels like a combination of Don't Look Back -- D.A. Pennebaker's masterful filmic account of a young, cocky and creatively explosive Bob Dylan -- and Michael Moore's anti-corporate missive Roger & Me. Sure, Jones's tale is told from one side -- that of a devoted fan -- but it's geared to other Wilco fans who are probably already poised to back their heroes' story, anyway.
Non-Wilco worshipers will find something to take away from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, even if it is a rehash of what Aimee, Courtney and Chuck have been telling us all along. After debuting at the Boulder Theater last week, the film will open Friday, September 6, for an exclusive engagement at the nifty Starz FilmCenter on the Auraria Campus. For music fans and aspirants, it's worth being there.
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There are plenty of reasons to be in local music venues as well as movie theaters this week. Here's a preview:
Pure Drama's prodigal frontman Ryan Policky steps behind the turntables for a DJ appearance at Andenken Gallery (2110 Market Street) on Saturday, September 7. The evening's marriage of music and visual modernity celebrates the launch of the new Denver-based national magazine Rebelion, described as similar to Canada's brilliantly subversive Adbusters. The evening is co-coordinated by artist Michelle Barnes, who also has a hand in the fun, new "live art" exhibitions Tuesday nights at Ginger Bar (the rooftop patio space above the Funky Buddha), where local doodlers, painters and sketch artists create works on site -- to the beat...Also on September 7, singer and guitar slinger Elea Plotkin returns to the Lion's Lair for a ripping performance with Nashville's Joe Nolan. Selections from Plotkin's CD Little Rockets have recently found their way onto alternatively formatted stations the country over. Come see what the people are tuning in for...The Motet, possibly poised to be the next Colorado-grown star of the jam-band touring circuit, play a hometown show to celebrate the pre-release of Live, a new album recorded -- you guessed it -- during a smattering of the band's live shows. Dave Watts and his Mo' mates appear Friday, September 6, at the Boulder Theater...Pinhead Circus is no more, but the band's final show lives on in infamy thanks to Live at Last, a new CD recorded during the band's farewell show in May. Be among the first to squeeze the live out of it on September 6, when former Pinheads regroup as Love Me Destroyer at Boulder's Tulagi. The show is sure to pack a punch: Headlined by the always-fun Denver band, the bill also features the Gamits, Laymen Terms and the Stuntdoubles. Oh, l'amour.