I recently watched the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the film about the trials and tribulations of the band Wilco as they make and try to release their album Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. It’s a good film about the intersection of art and commerce, but one of the more interesting things to me as a filmmaker was a scene that typifies the kind of decision most documentary filmmakers must make at least once. Let me set it up.
The band has been through the ringer. They produced an album that, for the indie pop music world, is considered experimental and were dropped by their record label, Reprise Records. A key member of the band is fired. They can’t seem to find their feet. Finally, after months of being in limbo, the record is picked up by Nonesuch Records (Reprise and Nonesuch are both subsidiaries of Warner Music Group). Everyone is relieved, and the band’s leader, Jeff Tweedy, sings Bill Fay’s Be Not So Fearful to his band mates in what looks like a hotel lobby. Here’s Bill Fay singing it:
It’s a beautiful moment. Some of the band members sing along softly, one cries. They seem to be simultaneously achieving catharsis, healing, and gathering strength from this song.
Being the film and music geek I am, I of course watched the DVD commentary, which features the band and director Sam Jones. Tweedy says at the end of the scene: “There’s some sort of feeling and comfort in singing Be Not So Fearful at that time, definitely.” (It’s true, this is one of those special songs. I’ve been singing and playing it a LOT lately.)
Tweedy also revealed in the commentary that this scene was shot shortly after 9/11.
Initially I was kind of stunned that this fact was not mentioned in the straight up release version of the film, and it seemed a bit misleading to include the scene and not at least cite the timing. I mean, we were all emotional messes at that time, and this moment could have been about that and not the trials and tribulation of Wilco.
But then I wondered, what would I have done?
To insert footage from 9/11 would have been wildly inappropriate. What then? Add a date somewhere on the screen for the first time? No. Add a timeline that runs through the film? You’d show how long the process would take and at that moment the 9/11 timing would be clear. Maybe.
What’s the other option? Omit such a beautiful, powerful moment that is key to telling this part of the band’s story, a moment that happens to occur soon after the U.S. is having a collective freak out?
I think I would have used it. I’m comfortable using scenes and dialogue out of the sequence in which they were shot if they’re in keeping with what was happening at the moment. I am not comfortable using the material out of context. It’s a fine line we frequently have to deal with.
What would you have done?
P.S. Yankee Foxtrot Hotel went on to be a critical and commercial success, and made Rolling Stone’s list of Top 500 Albums of all time, for whatever that’s worth.