Ashes of American Flags
by Stephen Slaybaugh

It’s hard to think that after 2002’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart that the world would ever need another documentary about Americana’s little band that could, Wilco. That film had the good fortune of stumbling upon the band at a particularly turbulent crossroads, where everything was thrown into question as members departed and their record company ultimately passed on what was their most arduous and adventurous album to that date, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But apparently filmmakers Brendan Canty (the former Fugazi drummer) and Christoph Green felt that the world hadn’t seen enough of Wilco, and that capturing the band live on its 2008 tour might give further insight into the group that’s now become an alterna-household name.

Released on Record Store Day, Ashes of American Flags is a thing of beauty to look at, Canty and Green capturing the scope of America’s highways as shot through the tour bus window as well as each performance with a sense of grandeur. The latter is taken from four shows performed at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tipitina’s in New Orleans, the Ryman Auditorium (formerly the home of the Grand Ole Opry) in Nashville and the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, and we get to see Wilco onstage running through such cuts as “Impossible Germany,” “Shot in the Arm” and “War on War.” Of course, this is not the same Wilco as from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but the six-piece that made the bumbling eclectic Sky Blue Sky.

Aside from juxtaposing some shots outside the Ryman with a soundcheck done at Cain’s, the problem with the film isn’t so much a dilemma of directorial prowess, but simply subject matter. Whereas tension within the band and the struggle against the odds of Wilco circa 2001 made for a natural plot line, there’s nothing to feel empathic about this rendition of the band. Though it may make for good footage for a disability claim, that guitarist Nels Cline has spinal damage from playing or that drummer Glenn Kotche beats his hands till they bleed or that Jeff Tweedy needs a steroid shot just to sing do not make for a compelling story. Ashes, however majestic it may appear in doing so, simply presents the travails of a touring band, and even compelling renditions of the band’s catalog cannot elevate it above being anymore than that. Though the context of playing in storied venues helps place the band amongst its proper lineage, there really was no reason for the band to wear out its cinematic welcome.