The concert film Ashes
of American Flags channels the spirit of
BY A. WATT
This is not a live performance DVD. It’s too beautifully
shot for that. And the way they’ve worked in backstage interviews and pre-show
atmosphere, Ashes of American Flags (Nonesuch)
is closer in spirit to Martin Scorsese’s celebrated concert film, The Last Waltz, but without the sense of
Even the way they ease into the action is artfully done, as
scenes shot through a rolling tour bus window alternate with tight shots on
Jeff Tweedy as he sings the melancholy title track, one of several highlights
cherry-picked from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot two albums after the fact (four in the proper film, two in the extras). And
they sign off with an awkward backstage meet and greet where Tweedy’s father
says “His music’s been so much fun. It keeps me young,” to which his son
interjects with a devilish grin, “It’s not doing a very good job.”
It’s a classic moment, but it’s doubtful anyone will find
those little moments more intriguing than the music –13 songs in the actual
film and seven in the extras.
Filmmakers Brendan Canty and Christoph Green of Trixie
Films, the team responsible for Tweedy’s solo DVD, Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, assembled the film
from five performances, including one at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and one
at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, piecing the footage together in a way that flows
as naturally as any Wilco concert.
Nearly every song is stunning, as much for Nels Cline’s
shredding virtuosity and commitment to chaos as for Tweedy’s aching vocals.
Highlights range from the understated title track to the spirited climax of
“Shot in the Arm” and a big, raucous “Monday” complete with a horn section. But
the one song guaranteed to make most viewers’ jaws drop is “Via Chicago,”
Tweedy calmly strumming his acoustic and singing, completely unfazed by the
chaos his bandmates are unleashing all around him. It sounds like a jet taking
off while another one crashes.
If there’s one thing I don’t get, it’s how some of the
better performances were relegated to the extras rather than taking their place
in the actual film, including an intense “At Least That’s What You Said” and a
version of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” that’s as artfully done as the one
on the album.
The other day I got an email from a publicist declaring
Aerosmith the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band, which inspired much
hilarity among the music geeks at work. But no one could really commit to a
band they felt deserving of the title.
Then I saw this film.
[Photo Credit: Frank