Sunday, 26 April 2009

Ashes Of American Flags

With a few screeners in hand, I'll be trying to get in some early reviews of films playing at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto (April 30 - May 10).

I get it now. I think I finally get Wilco.

I've read much praise of the band over the years (starting from their early days branching out of alt-country darlings Uncle Tupelo) and even though I own one of their albums (2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"), I haven't really had too much of an opinion of them. The few listens I gave to YHF never yielded much for me and I only had vague memories of odd pacing and long moments of quiet.

But seeing a band perform live - even if it's just on your TV screen - can change your mind pretty quick. As a matter of fact, by the third song of Brendan Canty and Christoph Green's concert documentary of the band, I was fully converted. That single song (the wonderful "Handshake Drugs") pretty much encapsulates the band's qualities as shown throughout the rest of the music presented in the film. The opening bars of the song, for example, seem to jump right into a chorus-like melody (and an odd one at that) and it takes awhile to adjust to the flow of the song. Within less than a minute though, it feels completely natural and fits the song snugly. Since I had not heard most of these songs before, this was not an uncommon feeling during the 90 minute run time and I loved seeing how the songs would grow from these sometimes hesitant beginnings. The band's country influences pop up over and over again, though usually in more subtle ways, and there's also a strong vibe coming straight from The Band - particularly during "The Late Greats" and "Kingpin" at the Tipitina's show.

Jeff Tweedy's rough, slightly thin vocals appear to be packed with life-experience and feel somewhat like negotiating a mine field. There's just a slight tension I couldn't escape while he sang that felt like a specific lyric or entry to a chorus could trigger an emotional barrage. Guitarist Nels Cline also seemed ready to burst due to his almost apoplectic guitar playing. On the flip side were the steady melodic bass lines of John Stirratt and the infectious (and also very sweaty) drumming of Glenn Kotche. Another repeated characteristic was for occasional walls of noise to erupt while the melody and structure of the song underneath continued unabated.

The film doesn't break new ground as a concert documentary, but when it does everything this well you likely won't care. It lets the band play - every song is played start to finish with no interruptions - and you get a good feel for each band member's contributions. The camera work is dynamic and feels pretty spontaneous giving additional energy to the performances (and no goofy special effects thrown in either). The tour lands us in Tulsa, New Orleans, Mobile, Nashville and Washington D.C. with about 3 songs per location and it never makes you wait for long periods of time between songs.

That makes the "road" sections of the film pretty short, but they excel in several different ways. The cinematography is lovely (it won a Best Cinematography award at the Big Sky Film Festival) as we see highways, countryside and small towns pass by. There's a certain feeling from the film that much of what they are experiencing is slowly slipping away - whether it's due to greater success and bigger halls for the band itself or the slow erosion of small town life they see as they travel. Tweedy handles most of the interview portions and all the little bits of information we learn about the band and its members are usually interesting and unique without being cliche. My favourite of these are the comments about drummer Kotche's impending fatherhood for the first time. His approach is to research and read as much as possible about parenting, but Tweedy warns him that the child will more than likely be a Cecil Taylor clone and be a master improviser that you can't really prepare for anyway.

I can't imagine long time Wilco fans not loving this film, but hopefully it also helps expand the reach of their music. I'm pretty glad it finally got to my ears.

Here's the trailer:

"Ashes Of American Flags" screens:

  • Friday May 8th at 9:15 (Bloor Cinema)
  • Saturday May 9th 4:30 (The Royal Cinema)


James McNally said...

Looking forward to this one, even though I wouldn't call myself a die-hard fan. I LOVED LOVED LOVED Sam Jones's documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002), which you should definitely check out now.

Bob Turnbull said...

Oh man, you bet I'm going to find "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart". It's actually been on my list for awhile, but has vaulted near the top now.

Darren said...


I've always hoped that a concert I attended would be captured in a great rock-n-roll documentary, so I'm thrilled with Ashes of American Flags. The "on the road" portions of the film romanticize somewhat smalltown America, but I really love seeing my part of the country from their point of view.

And, Bob, you're right -- As great as the Wilco studio albums are, it takes seeing them live to get why, in my opinion, they're the best rock band in the world right now. I saw them again two weeks ago and they didn't disappoint.

Bob Turnbull said...

I can't wait until they come back up to Toronto - since you saw them two weeks ago, I assume they are on tour...Must check dates...

That's awesome you saw them at the Nashville show. I'm gonna freeze frame my way through that section of the film to try to spot you.

They do paint a certain picture of the small towns, but I can't blame their perception of it. I actually wouldn't have minded to hear more...