Words by: Ben Richardson
Double-feature action was a no-go at the Roxie, and by the time people filed back into the theater, it was difficult to glean who had stuck around for both films. Unscientifically, the crowd for Ashes of American Flags–a Wilco concert film by Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty–contained 20% more fleece, and perhaps 10% more North Face, than the crowd that had preceded it.
Another concert clip began the proceedings, this time highlighting better-known folk-rock rabble-rousers The Mountain Goats, and John Darnielle’s impassioned frontmanship set the tone for the enthusiastic performing that was to follow. Though in large part a concert film, Ashes of American Flags is constructed around a kind of “death of the American dream” thesis, as the title might suggest. Canty and his collaborators in Wilco are leery of what they perceive as the Wal-Martization of the country–specifically the way that eroding small-town cultural centers are losing storied, historical concert venues.
To this end, the film is organized around five Wilco performances, each taking place at a venue that exemplifies the country’s endangered history. Cainâ€™s Ballroom in Tulsa, Tipitinaâ€™s in New Orleans, the Mobile, Alabama Civic Center, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. are all captured in loving HD, and the folksy, rootsy but also modern music of Wilco serves as a perfect metaphor for the way these venues can be celebrated and preserved, but also reinvigorated.
Fans of Wilco would have been unsurprised by the energetic and engrossing performances captured by Canty, but for the relatively uninitiated like me, the film an was eye-opening introduction to a live band at the pinnacle of its manifold abilities. Canty’s background as a musician no doubt helped him choose what to portray and when, and the shots selected do a masterful job conveying the band’s densely layered and emotive sound. Concert film tropes like the bass-drum-beater-eye-view and the guitar-shred close-up were deployed but reinvented, and the shots of guitarist Nels Cline’s frentic fretboard expeditions captured both the technique on display and the giddy, kinetic quality of his playing.
The appreciative audience applauded the screen after nearly every song, as the various concert fixtures captured Wilco running through some of their best known and best loved tunes. Jeff Tweedy was a consummate wit on the mic, working the crowd with the skill of a stand-up comic, and each filmed audience seemed more rabid than the last, culminating with an audacious bra-chucker in our nation’s capital. Despite experiencing the concerts second-hand, the film’s unimpeachable sound mix made it feel like you were, like, actually there, man, particularly during the cacophony in “Via Chicago.”
Documentary-style footage was interspersed with the live material, advancing the film’s socio-political message and opening a window into the life of a band on the road. Glamour shots of fading Middle America–the bus crossing a dilapidated highway bridge, tired tinsel fluttering in the wind–were a little sentimental, and didn’t have the same impact as the footage of the regal, aging venues. Interviews with the band members were sprightly enough, but failed to uncover anything too notable. Wilco seem to be a band of relatively well-adjusted white dudes who have nice things to say about each other, and that doesn’t really make for edge-of-your-seat cinema.
A few short vignettes did manage to speak to something more sublime. Footage of bandmember Pat Sansone snapping shots of a rusted-out trailer with a Polaroid–“Capturing pieces of a fading America with a fading technology”–spoke eloquently to the film’s titular theme, and some backstage carousing with the frontman’s proud Papa was both cute and funny. Brendan Canty, the director, took questions after the film, cracking jokes and making time at the end to enlighten this poorly-informed DC-native reporter on the 9:30 club’s secret history. Wednesday’s screening was only the second time the film had been shown, so Noise Poppers should consider themselves lucky at having received and early dose of Wilco magic.