One thing I will admit about Jeff Tweedy: This guy is clever, or at least he thinks he is. I just watched Sunken Treasure: Jeff Tweedy Live in the Pacific Northwest, a film of Tweedy’s experiences on the road last February, just a few weeks prior to his solo gig in Mandel Hall, and it seems like Tweedy talks almost as much as he sings. And let’s face it, Tweedy is a hot commodity not because he’s a smart ass, but because he sings about being in love in ways that seem so much more intriguing than any relationship you’ve ever had.
Tweedy and his film’s editors don’t quite get how best to utilize film to show off Tweedy’s talents. When he plays Portland, he informs his eager audience, “I want to be the best I can be for you. I want to make you happy…. Can you shut up for once in your fucking lives?” The crowd, full of good sports, puts up with this, but Tweedy remains belligerent and goes on to say, “Let’s see how long we can be quiet and see how fucking awesome it feels. Seriously, it’s gonna be cool. Cool. It could go on even longer, couldn’t it?” Thanks for breaking both the momentum and our spirits, Jeff. Maybe the crowd did shut up after that, but part of the reason we watch a concert film instead of listening to our favorite Wilco albums is because we want to feel like we are actually there at the concert. To do this, it really helps to hear the noise of the crowd, so that we know how our counterparts—lucky enough to be at the live show—are acting, so that we know how we should be feeling as viewers. We live through the crowd, not Tweedy, and he’s crushing the crowd’s high. We rarely even get to see the faces of the crowd we wish we could be part of, not even in a panned shot.
Tweedy does, thankfully, play all of his most crucial songs, from “Theologians” in Seattle, to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” in Eugene, to a glorious “Heavy Metal Drummer” at the Fillmore in San Francisco, but he does them all acoustically. While this works well for the intimacy of a one-man act playing small Mandel-sized venues, it is not a form that transfers well to film. The chosen format requires Tweedy as the performer to be even more energetic, even more excited to be playing for both his live audiences and his movie’s viewers, but the acoustic nature makes it hard for him to effectively communicate through film.
Visually, this film varies quite a bit in quality. The shots of Tweedy performing are fairly standard. The shots seem to be following only the most basic of techniques—how many close-ups of Tweedy’s unshaven chin do we need to see as he flirts with the microphone? The most interesting visual detail becomes Tweedy’s rather standard set, a living-room style set-up that has him standing on an area rug that that seems almost like a red carpet when shot from certain camera angles.
We do get some interesting footage, though, of the coastal towns and cities that Tweedy and his entourage drive through between gigs. We see raindrop-covered windshields, rooftops from crazy angles, and street scenes, with songs like “Airline to Heaven” in the background. Such details make us want to forgive Tweedy for the snippets of interviews intermixed throughout, in which he attempts to describe the service that concerts perform for as “collectiveness” (U of C translation: collective effervescence).
And while Sunken Treasure, a mixed bag throughout, lacks momentum and energy, it seems to have figured out its strengths by the end, when the closing credits play to “California Stars” while we sit next to Tweedy in the passenger’s seat, watching the windshield wipers push aside the rain as we drive across the Golden Gate Bridge at night.