(2014) Musical Documentary (Sony Classics) Chris Stamp, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Hemming, Terence Stamp, Kit Lambert (archival footage), Heather Daltrey, Irish Jack, Richard Barnes, Robert Fearnley-Whittingstallt6. Directed by James D. Cooper
Few bands have had the impact that The Who have had in their career. It can be argued that of all the bands in rock and roll, only the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys have had the kind of influence on the medium that they have had. Guitarist and principle songwriter Pete Townshend is considered one of the best songwriters in the history of rock and their rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia expanded the art form and of course their songs continue to be staples of classic rock radio even now.
Once upon a time, though, they were a scruffy band playing in dingy clubs to crowds of diffident Mods. There, they were discovered by nascent filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who met as assistant directors at Shepperton Studios. Both were devotees of French New Wave cinema in general and Jean-Luc Godard in particular and both aspired to become great directors in their own right. They hit upon the idea of filming in London’s rocking underground club scene and focusing on a single group, which after seeing their wild performances they hit upon a band called the High Numbers.
The film never came to pass but the band so impressed the two filmmakers that they were inspired to become their managers and this fortuitous encounter would lead to some of the most potent rock and roll in history. Lambert, an Oxford-educated homosexual (in an era where it was illegal in England to be one) and Stamp, a rough and tumble Cockney who was a ladies’ man couldn’t have been more different if they’d tried but somehow they meshed together well; Lambert furnished Townshend with classical recordings to help his songwriting form while Stamp helped their stage show become one of the more talked about of its time.
All the elements are here for a documentary film that should have been absolute amazing; the film taken by Lambert and Stamp of the band in their High Numbers days alone would be enough to recommend the movie. Sadly, though, the film is overloaded with talking heads. Stamp, who passed in 2012 after his interviews were recorded, is a pleasant enough raconteur (and looks the part, dressed in a tux for Townshend and Daltrey’s Kennedy Center Honors) but just watching him talk is not in and of itself compelling enough.
Most of the interview time goes to Stamp, Townshend and Daltrey – Lambert died in 1981 after years of drug problems which would lead to the pair being fired as manager and an extended estrangement between the band and their former managers. Strangely, Lambert’s death is implied through the interviews and nothing concrete is really said about his death or its effect on Stamp or the band. Even Keith Moon’s untimely death was only mentioned in passing as reference to a legal meeting between the Who and their former managers. Considering the importance of Moon and bassist John Entwhistle to the sound of the band, it is kind of odd that they get very little attention in the documentary.
Given the richness of the source material and some of the really amazing archival footage, this is a disappointment. The movie is at its best when delving down into the creative process of the band, and when we got to know them (and their managers) more personally; Stamp talks about a notorious fistfight between Daltrey and Moon onstage that nearly splintered the band early in their career and how he intervened in getting Daltrey to find other ways to resolve conflicts rather than using his fists. We also get a sense of how wounded Stamp was when the band chose Ken Russell to direct a film version of Tommy, once again frustrating his dream of being a film director (he and Lambert assumed they would get the job). There is also footage of a young Townshend playing an acoustic version of “Glittering Girl” for Lambert and Stamp, both nodding approval as he plays.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderful anecdotes, like friend John Hemming joking that chain-smoking Lambert only used one match in his entire life – the one that lit his first cigarette. Moments like that are swamped by endless discussion of minutiae that will only be of interest to diehard Who fans, who admittedly are going to love this movie a lot more than those viewers who aren’t into the band as much, which is a shame because there’s a whole generation that would benefit from discovering their music, which is some of the best rock and roll ever made. When the interviewees talk facts and figures, you’ll find yourself nodding off. When the interviewees open up, so does the movie. Sadly though that doesn’t happen enough to make this a memorable film.
REASONS TO GO: Wonderful subject. Some great archival performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Unforgivably boring. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of drug content and one scene of brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Stamp is the younger brother of actor Terence Stamp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75 /100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets