Review: Ashes of American Flags

“Thank you. See you tomorrow night.”
– Jeff Tweedy

With the above line, the new Wilco film, Ashes of American Flags, closes. It’s not a question that’s posed here, or a statement, or even a suggestion. It is an imperative: We will be here tomorrow night.

Because, as the band’s lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy explains, this is what Wilco does. Night after night, town after town, they play. They are a touring band, a band that first and foremost must be seen live, and this new film, from directors Christoph Green and Brendan Canty, brilliantly documents a group of musicians in their element, and, arguably, at the peak of their career.

Green and Canty capture five nights of Wilco in five cities: Tulsa, New Orleans, Mobile, Nashville, and Washington, DC. Along the way, we catch glimpses of the band off stage, in very un-rock-star-like settings. We see the toll that performing takes on them, with post-show ice treatments for guitarist Nels Cline, who says he gives himself whiplash nightly and is trying to prevent two vertebrae from fusing, and drummer Glenn Kotche, who bloodies his hands each performance. We see the requisite Tweedy monologues, airing his opinions on what art and music are for and should be. Most revealing, we also see Pat Sansone using a Polaroid to photograph the Main Streets through which they travel — a dying technology capturing these dying towns, as he puts it.

In a sense, the anachronism of Sasone’s photographic mission is something of a metaphor for the band itself, for Wilco seems to be a band that is somewhat “out of time.” They are often associated with indie rock scene, although unlike many of the bands that play venues such as Coachella and SXSW, Wilco has a sense of a maturity about them, a polish and precision that contrasts with much of today’s music scene. (I’m talkin’ about you, White Stripes.) At the same time, while they’ve been around for a while, Wilco has somehow managed to not only persevere, but reinvent themselves along the way, churning out better and better music. (Unlike, say, The Dead, who are currently touring, playing the old songs sans-Jerry, or Bruce Springsteen, who for all his accolades has been making incredibly forgettable music lately.)

That said, this is at its core a concert film, and the songs chosen for it reflect both the versatility and virtuosity of the band. It includes concert rockers, like Kingpin, with Tweedy and the audience screaming back and forth, Monday, and A Shot in the Arm; there are also more melodic songs, such as Side with the Seeds and Ashes of American Flags. The variety of songs really give the viewer the feel of a typical Wilco concert, especially due to the incredible sound mixing. I don’t know if it was just that the theater had a great sound system, but this may have been the best sounding film I’ve ever attended (very curious to hear the DVD at home…). A few of the songs were sound checks, and without the audience cheering and screaming and other noises that come along with a live show, this was some of the cleanest, most well-balanced music I’ve heard.

And while some personal favorites were not included in the mix (Pot Kettle Black, Kidsmoke), the performance of Impossible Germany alone makes this film worth watching. Three guitars, with Nels Cline — who comes out from this film as the real star behind Wilco’s music, and deservedly so — playing seemingly impossible lead runs, all building into a crescendo of sound that exemplifies everything one needs to know musically about this band.

These moments of crescendo are what makes Wilco worth seeing live, and what makes this film so special. As the filmmakers told those of us in the audience at the IFC theater last night, this was a labor of love for them — fans setting out to make a proper film, a film that not only documents but respects the music.

And that word “respect” is probably the right term, and the reason Wilco works today as a band. Unlike their previous film, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a film about great music emerging from conflict, Ashes documents even greater music emerging from relationships that work. You can hear it in the way each band member complements the other in the film, and you can see it in the way they smile at each other when they’re playing — these guys are having fun, they are good, and they know it.

For anyone who has never seen Wilco, this film is an excellent introduction. For fans, it’s a reassurance that Wilco really is as good as we remember them to be in concert.

So, yes, Jeff Tweedy. We know you will see us tomorrow night. And the next, and the next.

And, if I can speak for Wilco fans everywhere, we look forward to seeing you, too.

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