'On the Road': Film Review | London Film Festival 2016

One of Winterbottom's slighter works, but should please fans of the band.

Featuring performances by British neo-grunge outfit Wolf Alice, and Leah Harvey and James McArdle as new lovers, director Michael Winterbottom's new film is both a rock documentary and a romance.

There was a time, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it felt like there was a new film from British director Michael Winterbottom every couple of months, each one assaying a new genre or style. Protean and prolific, he made literary adaptations both straight (Jude) and twisty (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), dark dramas (The Killer Inside Me) and light comedies (the Trip films, among others, and arguably his best, 24 Hour Party People). There were documentaries and docudramas (The Road to Guantanamo), and even the odd bit of sci-fi (Code 46) and quasi porn (9 Songs). 

Having arrived at his mid-50s, Winterbottom finally seems to be both slowing down moderately and slightly repeating himself. It’s been a whole year since his last film, the documentary The Emperor’s New Clothes, tracked comedian-cum-agitator Russell Brand, revealing political sympathies that were evident in The Shock Doctrine, his 2009 documentary collaboration with Mat Whitecross. Meanwhile, Winterbottom’s latest, On the Road, premiering at the London Film Festival, plays like a softcore version of 9 Songs, remixed with one of those band-profile documentaries that provide fan service for folk who couldn’t make the concerts.

Mostly, it unspools footage of indie rockers Wolf Alice, plus support acts Bloody Knees and Swim Deep, as the bands tour the U.K., sleep on tour buses, wait in green rooms, natter, bicker, josh around and, most importantly, perform onstage. Threaded in amongst this documented footage, a fictional romance, its dialogue seemingly improvised (no screenwriter is credited), blooms between record company gopher Estelle (Leah Harvey) and roadie Joe (James McArdle). When he’s not making sure the drum kit is set up correctly and she’s not hunting down towels for the dressing rooms, the comely couple get jiggy with each other in a series of hotel rooms.

It’s all pleasant enough to watch, especially if you like the neo-grunge music and enjoy watching attractive young people make out (clearly, Winterbottom is a big fan of both things). However, those not so turned on by such entertainment might question whether the film really needs to be nearly two hours long, especially when there’s so little drama to sustain it.

Both Harvey and McArdle are young, but they’re both experienced actors, especially onstage in Harvey’s case (McArdle had a small role as a pilot in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and they have the sort quirky but imperfect beauty that makes them plausible as music-business background players. Harvey actually plays a quarter-sized guitar and sings very prettily at one point, and one is left to wonder how her character ended up in management rather than performance. McArdle’s Joe has a peculiar wry charisma, and a lightly drawn scene where he meets his mother (Shirley Henderson) in a Glaswegian pub suggests a deeper backstory. Ultimately, though, the sketchiness is more frustrating than suggestive, and altogether the film seems to buy into the mythology of band life (and film life, for that matter) that nothing really matters when you’re on the road. Everyone lives for the moment, and what happens on the tour bus (or on location) stays there.

The professional musicians, effectively playing themselves, are even greater ciphers here. Footage of Wolf Alice answering journalists’ questions fills in a few blanks, such as where they got the band’s name (an Angela Carter story) and a few other details, but by and large lead singer Ellie Rowsell remains enigmatic and remote when not rocking out onstage. There, her natural charisma has an electric effect, and Winterbottom displays once again, as he did with 9 Songs and 24 Hour Party People, that he has a natural flair for communicating the intense, sweaty relationship between performers and their fans.

Production companies: A Revolution Films production with the support of Lorton Entertainment
Cast: James McArdle, Leah Harvey, Wolf Alice (Ellie Rowsell, Joff Oddie, Joel Amey, Theo Ellis), Paul Popplewell, Jamie Quinn, Swim Deep, Bloody Knees, Shirley Henderson
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Melissa Parmenter, Anthony Wilcox
Executive producers: Juian Bird, Abi Gadsby, Declan Reddington
Director of photography: James Clarke
Editor: Marc Richardson
Music: Wolf Alice, Bloody Knees, Swim Deep
Sales: Independent Film Company

Not rated, 112 minutes

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