Jay Bennett, Gone Too Soon (Where are you, Jay Bennett?–Film Review)

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In the opening of the new documentary Where are you Jay Bennett?, we hear the voice of the onetime Wilco member not only philosophizing but somewhat laughing about the events that led to his infamous departure. “I can understand why he wanted to have his own band,” Bennett muses in measured calm before he expounds, “but he didn’t have to be so hyperbolic about it!””

The voice of Bennett is culled from interview tapes the multi-instrumentalist recorded before his death with journalist Robert Loerzel. The film, co-directed by Fred Uhter and Gorman Bechard,  is being released on DVD with the last two of Bennett’s solo albums available on vinyl for the first time and just in time for Record Store Day. 

Bennett made six albums but in need of a hip replacement and without health insurance, he tragically passed away in 2009 from an accidental overdose of a painkiller, likely released from his pain patch. 

In Where are you, Jay Bennett?, his own voice is set against wonderful animation by Ed Gendron that provides a narrative thread that ties the film together. It is like he is on speakerphone calling in from the afterlife to set things right. And in those opening moments, the sardonic wit helps lighten the weight of the elephant in the room that the directors address right away—the seminal Wilco breakup that was documented in real time on the screen.

The still image of Bennett walking off a Chicago stage and waving goodbye with Wilco for the last time, remains ingrained in our minds. It was one of the many striking scenes of Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which chronicled the making of the band’s breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but simultaneously captured the dissolution of the Jay Bennett- Jeff Tweedy relationship. On the screen, Jeff Tweedy famously tells him that he could no longer make music with Bennett,

As Where are you, Jay Bennett unfolds, the weight of the Wilco documentary and its effect on Bennett becomes more clear. Bennett, who co-incidentally released his first solo album the same day his last Wilco album came out, was deeply affected. Several interviews paint the toll the editing of the documentary had on Bennett’s psyche that led to depression and precipitated a spiral of health problems. The directors make a point that Sam Jones did not respond to be interviewed for Where are you, Jay Bennett?

Against this backdrop, the new film does a wonderful job of capturing the quirkiness, inventiveness and brilliance of someone who never met an instrument he couldn’t play. Bennett once described hearing the open spaces of the songs and holes that became his sonic landscape. They were at the core of the remarkable string of Wilco’s albums Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The directors insert clips from I Am Trying To Break Your Heart  of the younger Tweedy at the mixing board as Bennett tries to verbalize his vision and implores him to understand his thought process. “I don’t need to understand you all the time,” Tweedy quips matter of factly shutting down the conversation in a foreboding moment of events to come.

The film features interviews from Billy Bragg and Nora Guthrie, the daughter of Woody Guthrie. Both detail the creation of the Mermaid Avenue Sessions which Wilco and Bragg developed based on unpublished lyrics the songwriter left behind. The film provides wonderful insights as to how Bennett selected “California Stars” and brought it to life.

Jay’s mother takes us through his evolution that led to his multi-instrumental prowess. In a funny moment, she recalls how Bennett and Tweedy both had dental problems during a tour leading to the title of Wilco’s album Summerteeth. Ultimately a mother knows her son best and she recognized that the two musical partners were too strong and needed to go their own ways.

On the television show Billions, Bennett’s separation from Wilco came up in a hallway conversation that is featured in Where are you, Jay Bennett?. Describing the relationship between Bennett and Jeff Tweedy as “the perfect mind meld,” character Elana Gabriel expounded about the communication between the two–and how it was on a level few reach. 

“Somehow, even though each had to know the other made him better, they just couldn’t find a way to keep going together,” she said, lamenting to Elana Gabriel that after Bennett left, Wilco was never the same.

“Makes you wonder how you can find a true partner and keep them.”

Against this, it doesn’t seem that Jeff Tweedy would be able to say anything that wouldn’t seem trite. That Tweedy is not on screen speaking with the directors is not surprising. Instead they keep it light, excerpting Tweedy’s voice from his own audiobook reading when he recalls Bennett on tour and his obsession with ketchup. It helps to lighten things for a few moments.

As the film progresses, the sadness that is ingrained in the faces of friends and family seems to be increasingly heavier.  Nowhere is it more felt than in the clips of Jay’s mother and brother, Casting all the drama of Bennett’s past aside, this in the end a story about a beloved person who is terribly missed. If you find yourself welling with tears, know you’re not the only one. Keep your tissues close at hand.

Look for  Where are you, Jay Bennett? on Record Store Day. https://recordstoreday.com/SpecialRelease/14740

You can rent or purchase the digital edition here.

For more information, visit What Were We Thinking Films here.

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