Cult of Personality
It’s hard to believe that films like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart are still being produced in the post-Spinal Tap era. I suppose you never really know what you’re going to end up with when you set out to shoot a documentary, but it hardly seems likely that photographer-turned-filmmaker Sam Jones could have created a more spot-on pastiche of that brilliant rock parody if that had been his aim.
That’s not a good thing. If This Is Spinal Tap punctured the balloon of rock music’s self-importance and artistic arrogance, then Sam Jones is doing his best to reinflate it. I’m sure it doesn’t show his subjects, the band Wilco, in their best light.
I wasn’t all that familiar with Wilco before this film, but I mostly liked what I heard here — musically speaking, that is. Perhaps they — or maybe just singer and lyricist Jeff Tweedy — really are the geniuses critics proclaimed them after hearing their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the process of the album’s creation and the saga of its long-delayed release are stories particularly worth telling, or ones with anything new to add to the annals of rock. If there is anything worth sharing, not much of it ended up onscreen.
Instead, I Am Trying (named for one of the band’s tunes) plays like a checklist of everything Rob Reiner and his cast were sending up: temperamental artists, whiny complaints about producers and record labels, “creative differences” causing a rift among the band members, awkward meetings with fans. Wilco is on the rise and their shows pack ’em in, but there’s a scene at a sound check for an outdoor show later that night with just a few lonely fans hanging around the arena for a listen, and all I could think was: “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap.”
And as if the pretension that any of this was significant — isn’t it common knowledge how evil and stupid record executives are? — the film is shot, unironically, in black- and- white.
Personality is what’s really missing in I Am Trying — frontman Jeff Tweedy is, like many creative people, introspective and tight-lipped about himself, which keeps the level of onscreen excitement to a bare minimum — while 24 Hour Party People exudes a veritable surfeit of such. There’s nothing quite as amusing as watching the rise and fall of an arrogant prick who’s both delusional and visionary, and that’s what Party People is all about.
Tony Wilson was a Granada Television reporter in Manchester, England, in the 1970s who, bored with the trite “human interest” stories he was assigned to cover, decided instead to become one of the most important people in the history of popular music. That’s how he might describe the situation, at least. Though Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script makes it clear that the truth in this based- on- fact flick has been embellished for entertainment purposes, there’s no question that Wilson’s overconfident hubris was just what the burgeoning punk scene in Manchester needed to break out in the mass consciousness.
After Wilson attends, in 1976, a revelatory concert by an unknown band called the Sex Pistols, he is moved to set himself up as a sort of messiah for Manchester punk, featuring local bands on his talk show, booking them into a punk night at a grungy nightclub, and eventually starting his own unconventional record label, Factory, to promote bands like Joy Division and New Order. Later, in the 80s and early 90s, his own club, The Hacienda, gave birth to the rave scene and became as iconic of Manchester in the 80s as Studio 54 was of New York in the 70s.
Such a bald rundown of historical fact cannot convey the sheer joyful insanity of the outstanding Steve Coogan’s Wilson, who offhandedly gets away with likening that sparsely attended Pistols concert (42 people) to the Last Supper — suggesting that the number of people present at an event is inversely proportional to its importance — and the opening of The Hacienda, for which no invitations have been sent, to the Sermon on the Mount, which also received no press prior to its delivery. The conceit of the real Wilson may be exaggerated here, for in hindsight his egotism and instincts were justified — he changed pop music forever, though he lost his shirt in the process — but it sure is entertaining.
Director Michael Winterbottom (The Claim) achieves here what every filmmaker documenting an historical moment should — he captures the excitement of the era, the history-making import of it, and makes you sorry you missed it. Winterbottom, rightly or wrongly so, places it all on the shoulders of Wilson — the music is infectious enough to make you want to get up and dance in the aisles, but this is the tale of the orchestrator, the producer, the man behind the curtain, which is never clearer than when Coogan’s Wilson addresses the camera to “remind” us that it’s all about the music. Bull. Creating the illusion of a documentary by shooting with rough-and-ready digital video scenes that feel entirely unstaged, Winterbottom “lets” Wilson take over, and that’s just fine.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics