In the mild hullabaloo around Tweedy, Jeff Tweedy's first official solo project which co-starts his 18 year old son Spencer and which I first heard attached to Richard Linklater's phenomenal Boyhood, I couldn't help but find myself reminiscing about one of my guilty pleasure movies and another project which linked Ethan Hawke and Mr. Tweedy, the 2001 film Chelsea Walls directed by Ethan Hawke and featuring original music from Mr. Wilco himself.
Before going on, I should make this caveat. Chelsea Walls is probably not a great movie. But, to be honest it's cinematic significance isn't what's propelling this post, either. The film is based on a play of the same name by Nicole Burdette, who also wrote the screenplay, and features some 30 odd characters including a whose who of your turn of the millennium crowd like Uma Thurman, Rosario Dawson, Steve Zahn, Paz de la Huerta, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kris Kristopherson, Tuesday Weld, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Sean Leonard. The later plays an aspiring musician who's also the lens through which the film is view. Leonard and Zahn have just arrived from Minnesota to start up music careers in New York and take refuge at the Chelsea Hotel, the famed NYC landmark made famous for housing some of the city's greatest arists. It's perhaps fitting, then that the elder Tweedy provides the music as Zahn and Leonard perform a spellbinding cover of Wilco's "The Lonely 1" in a bathtub.
These days it seems like the film, and soundtrack, are all but forgotten even though in many ways this was Jeff Tweedy's first solo album. Chelsea Walls came at the apex of a difficult time for Tweedy and Wilco. Though the band has, in recent years, emerged into something like the greatest living rock band in the US, 2001 was the make or break year that saw the band sever ties with it's old label over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a slew of band changes and the eventual solidification of the lineup to make way for what the band has become today (see I am Trying to Break Your Heart). Accompanying this was a kind of restlessness both among the band leader, Tweedy, and the group itself as it seemed like no one seemed content to just be in Wilco, but thad to be in everything else as well. For instance, the whole band teamed with the Minus 5 in 2003's Down with Wilco and a shortened paring of the YHF and Ghost is Born team (Kotche, Tweedy, and Wilco/Sonic Youth collaborator Jim O'Rourke) dubbed themselves Loose Fur and released a self-titled record in 2003 as well. It was an era of musical experimentation, to put it mildly, and for Tweedy the most experimental was probably his soundtrack for Hawke's Chelsea Walls.
The album itself features 6 tracks form Tweedy backed, usually, by Wilco/Loose Fur member Glen Kotche. The other 5 tracks feature 2 from Wilco. "Promising," a vintage Being There sounding recording (of the "Someone Else's Song" variety) and "When the Roses Bloom Again" from the band's Mermaid Ave sessions with Billy Bragg. Other standouts are Leonard and Zahn's Wilco cover and Jimmy Scott's incendiary rendition of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," which you can also catch in the film.
Still, it's Tweedy's music that dominates the soundtrack as it does the film acting as almost an absent character whose presence pervades like the haunted quality of Chelsea Hotel itself. Tweedy's composing here relies heavily on tricks that he seems to be picking up from Jim O'Rourke. "Red Elevator" sounds like it's main riff could have crawled out of the Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse sessions which O'Rourke was a part of. The fuzzy melange of sounds on "Red Elevator" gets repeated over and over in Tweedy's score which moves as easily from an acoustic moment with piano as it does with overlapping squeals. For fans of the band's work on Ghost is Born, you can feel the building blocks in Tweedy's work on this score as he seems to throw a ton of sounds in and see which one sticks. Sometimes, as on "Frank's Dream" the result is an akimbo jazzy recording with Kotche's drums seemingly the only thing holding the track together. Others, as on "Finale," a single riff seems to turn the universe around it drawing in new sounds and expanding other lines.
Pitchfork, in their trademarked snark, advised listeners that in the future only Wilco completeists would be interested in Tweedy's first recording under his own name and even then, they might regret what they had just gotten themselves into. 12 years after its release, I can't help but think that this record has been unjustly judged back then and remains unjustly out of the picture right now. First of all, there's the importance in terms of Wilco's transformation. But, beyond that, the soundtrack to Chelsea Walls is a thoroughly decent instrumental record with a couple great b-sides that you can't find anywhere else and two fantastic covers (Scott's and Leonard/Zahn's). It's probably fitting to end this post with the covers, as the version that Leonard and Zahn perform of Tweedy's music is one of the most revelatory moments of the film and the soundtrack. And as much as this is Leonard and Zahn's awkward portrayal of aspiring musicians (esp. Leonard's scene in the phonebook toward the end of the film) it's also based on the sheer strength of Tweedy's songwriting, which is somehow continually overlooked. This film made "The Lonely 1" into one of my favorite songs of all time and for me, at least for that, it's difficult to continually forget about Chelsea Walls.