Ashes of American Flags

Brendan Canty and Christoph Green

BY Vish KhannaPublished May 4, 2009

It sounds unlikely but Ashes of American Flags is an uncommonly vivid and astonishing live concert film, tracking Chicago's Wilco on a U.S. tour with rare intimacy — not simply revelling in their craft but, just as importantly, their intellect, sense of context and purpose.

With its hi-def explosions of colour, unique, inventive angles and visceral power, the film is monumental, rightly winning an award recently for Best Cinematography at the Big Sky Film Festival. Filmmakers Brendan Canty and Christoph Green, and sound engineer Eli Janney employed the same ad-hoc practices that made their Burn to Shine house concert series so remarkable but forced themselves to upscale for the large, famed venues Wilco played.

In Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom, Nels Cline seems like an alien musician during the film's title track, making an electric guitar sing notes the instrument might have never known, while drummer Glen Kotche is just a flurry of heavy, airtight rhythms and raining sweat. Multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone discusses his penchant for taking Polaroid pictures of broken down parts of his country with a "fading technology." In New Orleans, bassist John Stirrat and Sansone discuss their reverence for Tiptina's before playing the legendary venue, armed with a horn section ("the Total Pros"), which Jeff Tweedy jokingly describes as radio contest winners.

Often compared to as of late, Wilco sound the most like a new-fangled Last Waltz-era Band on "The Late Greats" and "Kingpin," the latter of which features an endearing audience scream-along. The off-stage moments are equally insightful, from Tweedy's lengthy explanation of his role as a songwriter, tackling representational art and its inevitable fostering of images in modes of interpretation to Cline and Kotche discussing the physical toll that playing so hard every night exacts upon them.

The political subtext of the film is the decline of the U.S. but it's presented subtly. Sansone and Stirrat in particular are obsessed with the Wal-Martization of America, seeing small towns teetering upon character destruction, night after night. As a type of counterpoint, Tweedy, who's brought Wilco from bare bones rock to expansive prog with players like Mikael Jorgensen, suggests that he's wary of over-romanticizing old-fashioned times, discussing this within the context of country and folk music purism.

Of course, this spiel is superimposed over Wilco about to perform a dramatic "Via Chicago" at the Ryman Auditorium — the original home of the Grand Ole Opry — in Nashville, TN. As a bra from the audience cascades down upon the 9:30 Club's stage in DC, and Tweedy scoops it up with his guitar during "Heavy Metal Drummer," Ashes of American Flags winds down, revealing the world's best live band in all their humour, joy, brilliance and quiet determination.

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