Music in the movies: I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

Glen looks at I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a documentary which exposes the sometimes fraught relationship between record label and band...

I have been fascinated with the events that surrounded the recording of Wilco’s album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for some time now, and have read numerous articles over the years regarding the fraught production process that involved creative differences between vocalist, front man Jeff Tweedy, multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and problems with their record label.

I recently got round to watching the documentary that captured the band during the recording of this, their fourth album, and the numerous events that surrounded it – I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco by Sam Jones – and was thoroughly impressed.

Wilco was given complete freedom to make the album it wanted by their label Reprise, who throughout the process didn’t ask to hear any of the master tapes. Viewers enjoy an intimate look at the writing and rehearsals of the material in the band’s loft/studio, and things appear to be going incredibly well. However, when the band headed to Chicago to mix the album with the help of Jim O’Rourke, tensions began to rise.Bennett, who had previously been charged with mixing and engineering the record, clashed with O’Rourke, despite being impressed with his results of remixing the album, as Bennett wanted to mix the album himself.

This led to a lengthy argument between Tweedy and Bennett about where either party seemed to be on the same page, and although Tweedy came off as being quite reasonable, Bennett wouldn’t let the matter go, leading to Tweedy disappearing to vomit in a toilet.

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The scene where Tweedy vomits after the argument could be taken a couple of ways. It could be, as he says, the result of a migraine, something from which he has suffered since he was a child, or it could be as a result of the argument itself and him feeling the pressures of the fact that valuable studio time was being wasted at a cost of $1,000 an hour.

Either way, Tweedy recovers and attempts to make peace with Bennett, but the problems between them clearly remain. Miscommunication between creative forces is rarely a sign of good things to come, and the breakdown in the relationship eventually lead to Bennett’s departure from the band.

When the band finally submitted the album to the label, the reaction was less enthusiastic than they had expected. The head of the label, who was a huge Wilco fan, had retired shortly before they submitted the album, and those who were now in charge didn’t like what they heard and wanted changes made before they would be happy to release it.

Obviously, the band were reluctant to do this, given that they were incredibly happy with what they had produced – they had made the album they set out to make, and were quite rightly proud of it.

With Reprise and Wilco unable to reach a compromise they parted ways, with Wilco gaining control of the master tapes of the album in lieu of compensation. I’ll point out that this is certainly the impression gained from watching the documentary – however, there are reports that the band had to pay $50,000 to gain control of the record.

Either way the deal – or lack thereof – turned out to be beneficial for Wilco, as Reprise had initially given it $100,000 to make the record, and when the album was finally released it saw the band achieve its highest chart position and remains its best-selling album to date.

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The most amazing aspect of this debacle was the fact that Reprise, a Time Warner subsidiary, paid for the album and then released the band only for Nonesuch Records, another Time Warner subsidiary, to sign the band and release the album. So in effect, Warner paid for the album twice.

To a degree I can understand Reprise’s standpoint. Prior to YHF, Wilco had released three albums that were well received but didn’t achieve the level of sales it had hoped for. So on paper a more experimental album from a band that had, to date, failed to live up to expectations was not exactly going to be seen as commercial gold.

However, even on first listen it’s clear that there’s a lot going on, and that it’s an album that will improve with time. Plus there are plenty of tracks that are instantly accessible. Like YHF, a lot of my favourite albums aren’t the ones that grabbed me on my first listen, they’re the ones that improve over time, and I’m able to discover new aspects to enjoy with each play.

Reprise’s handling of this situation led to a kind of Wilco effect, with the label investing in bands and standing by their creative vision. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has stated that they’re one of the bands that benefited from the label’s very public mistake over the Wilco debacle, stating that the label said that they would never have a situation where a band didn’t feel as though the label believed in them.

So, although the situation was regrettable, both Wilco and Reprise has benefited from it in the end. Wilcowas able to release the album as it wanted to critical and commercial success, and Reprise learned from its mistakes, invested in bands and allowed them to realise their creative visions fully which, in the case of the Flaming Lips, has proved to be an excellent strategy given the successes over the years.

Whilst the trials the band suffered through during the making of this record created what must have been uncomfortable moments to witness, as is evident from the footage, Sam Jones must have been thankful in a way that he was there to capture such events and provide an important document for the band and its fans at a make-or-break moment in its career.

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Jones, whose main occupation prior to this documentary was as a photographer, beautifully captures the events in black-and-white using a 16mm camera. Not only is it beautifully shot, but the footage has been edited together superbly into a compelling and hugely entertaining 90 minute feature.

To lesser bands, the trials that Wilco suffered through with the making of YHF could have spelt the end. However, its perseverance and belief in the work it produced led to it pulling off a truly remarkable coup and releasing an album that was regarded, by many, as one of the best released that year, and still regarded as a classic album to this day.

This documentary comes highly recommended – even for those like me who aren’t huge fans of the band, there are still movements of huge interest in this well-made piece of work, most notably the look at band politics and the relationship between artist and record label.