Sunday, November 01, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #9: Poor Places by Wilco

There’s something inherently fascinating about watching a talented person do their job well, regardless of your interest in that job itself. In this regard, I always take issue with snobs who deride “reality television,” as if anything that isn’t scripted falls under a singular umbrella. The key to whether non-fiction television or films are worth watching lies in a vital question the viewer should be asking: "Are the subjects on screen showcasing their talent in a compelling way?" Yes answers seem to apply to "Deadliest Catch," "American Chopper," or "Project Runway." No answers apply to anything with the word "Housewives" in the title, or any talent being showcased in "talent show" format.  There's a reason why "Top Chef" is appointment television for me, despite the fact that I know next to nothing about most of the foodie language they're throwing around.  Likewise, NPR makes a perfectly compelling argument about why ESPN's 30 for 30 docs are perfect for people who hate sports

Watching talented people work is the key to the success of Sam Jones' documentary about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Granted, both the film and the album are perhaps overshadowed by the now legendary circumstances surrounding the album being dropped by Reprise - a still baffling rejection that former A&R rep Mio Vukovic will wear to his final days.  And yes, it's also true that other surface highlights of the film are the arguments between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, culminating with Bennett's bitter departure from the band.   

But the soul of the film is Bennett and Tweedy showcasing how they collaborated to come up with arrangements that neither would never achieve afterward without the other.  The output that the two achieved in the Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era was lightning in a bottle, light years beyond Being There, which is pretty great in its own right.  The arguments seem obviously petty with Bennett now gone, but the document of their actual work is still spellbinding, particularly in the way that Jones documents the evolution of "Poor Places," from an outstanding-yet-simple folk song to a multi-layered schizophrenic masterpiece.  Jones seamlessly paces through the progression, from Tweedy playing the bare demo, to Glenn Kotche experimenting with rhythm, to Bennett grinning like a kid on Christmas as he wonders if they'll lose their mind while looking for more layers to add.  

Obviously when Jones decided to record Wilco making an album, he had no idea about the politics and in-fighting that would become such a big part of the narrative. But he also couldn't have known how impressive the final product itself would be.  Considering Bennett's early passing, it's nice to have a permanent record of his creative process to remember him by.

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