With Wilco's lead singer Jeff Tweedy providing low-key passion and intransigence, and director Sam Jones finding the sweaty visual poetry of lived-in city spaces, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is one documentary that goes through major growth spurts every half hour.
This picture is jagged and exciting; it tells several plots imperfectly, yet makes them add up to a great American story about integrity challenged and triumphant.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart starts with Wilco's members laying down tracks for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, thrilled by the prospect of producing their own CD with the Reprise label's money and no interference. You witness the creative cocooning of this band. You also know in your gut why they need to break out for fresh air, performing for live audiences and mocking their own seriousness - and why they head back to the cocoon.
Bearded and pudgy, Tweedy is an example of the deceptive potency and wiliness of guys who look like teddy bears. He may talk of his need "to deconstruct" his songs before discovering the best possible form for them, but he's also capable of pulling off a deadpan put-on as a rock star pandering to radical audiences while consorting with celebrities. (Actually, in the one purely personal scene, Tweedy, his wife and two kids shamble into a McDonald's.)
Tweedy proves such a magnet for viewer sympathy that by the time he greets aficionados after a San Francisco concert (only about 20 minutes into the movie), we identify with his befuddlement at meaningless music-scene banter. When he tries to explain that he left lots of "holes" - aural spaces - in his new songs, one sorry wit asks whether that means he has Courtney Love (her band is Hole) in them.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is also about the internal strain communal creativity puts upon the band, resulting in the ouster of writer, guitarist and keyboard specialist Jay Bennett. One scene of Bennett demanding - with an exhausting onslaught of articulation - that Tweedy understand why he made a debatable choice conveys all the agony of partnership fatigue. Tweedy takes a break to throw up; he confesses that his migraines trigger vomiting and that he used to throw up 20 to 30 times a day and be hospitalized for dehydration.
Most of all, this movie is about the cauldron of commerce, adulation and rejection that is the lot of the American artist. Who threatens to have final say over the product of Tweedy and company's laughter, tears and vomit? The honchos at the record company.
At the halfway mark, we learn that Reprise has gone through an executive change. Just after Tweedy and company give a wonderful explication of the nit-picking and fresh vision that go into the final draft of any artwork, Jones builds to the revelation that Reprise turns down the record.
But Wilco holds its ground, keeps performing and lets critics and fans argue for their worth. They wind up, ironically, at another Warner Music Group company, Nonesuch. The happy ending can be seen in any record store today, where you'll find Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the ranks of the top sellers.
Among popular-art documentaries, only moviemaker Richard Rush's The Sinister Saga of Making 'The Stunt Man' (available on the special-edition DVD) has homed in as bravely on the corporate mentality's inability to deal with art that doesn't exploit a pigeonholed audience with a slogan-ready set of themes and a ready-made marketing hook. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart lacks Rush's cinematic inventiveness and rich detail, but it, too, is a stirring salute to the stamina of the American artist as individualist.
Listening to Tweedy's lyrics - the title song contains lines like: Let's forget about the tongue-tied lightning/Let's undress just like cross-eyed strangers - makes you want to buy the album. So does the sinister saga of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Watch Michael Sragow's movie reviews Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. on ABC2 News, and online at sunspot.net.