Lambert & Stamp: Sundance Review

Lambert & Stam Film still - H 2014
Courtesy of Sundance

Lambert & Stam Film still - H 2014

A wonderfully alive behind-the-music chronicle that rescues two genuine mavericks from the footnotes of rock history.

James D. Cooper’s celebratory documentary traces the roots of The Who via its affectionate portrait of the idiosyncratic management team that helped define the band.

Is it too sweeping a statement to say Lambert & Stamp instantly earns a place in the pantheon of great music docs? Who cares, let’s just go ahead and say it. This wildly entertaining account of the genesis and rise of The Who gives due acknowledgement to Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who are described by Roger Daltrey as the band’s fifth and sixth members. James D. Cooper’s rollicking film is a heady return to Swinging Sixties England at the height of the Mod explosion that’s packed with primo archival material and killer tunes. It’s also a vigorous testament to the rewards of creative collaboration, shining a spotlight on two highly unorthodox, self-invented rock entrepreneurs.

The brilliant synergy of those contradictory yet complementary personalities should make this dynamically packaged movie of interest to audiences far beyond hardcore Who fans. As an account of the early days of a band that galvanized “My Generation” while smashing up guitars, it’s as probing and candid as one could hope for -- stuffed with memorable anecdotes and tasty trivia nuggets. But Lambert & Stamp is arguably even more rewarding -- not to mention surprisingly moving -- as an intimate snapshot of an unlikely chalk-and-cheese friendship.

Lambert died in 1981, which might be expected to cause an imbalance in the way the band’s joint managers are represented. Though he died in late 2012, the garrulous Stamp was still very much around at the time this film was being made, to share his colorful recollections first-hand. But Cooper and ace editor Christopher Tellefsen have accessed an extraordinary trove of filmed material and interviews that make Lambert every bit as vivid a presence in absentia as his friend and business partner, or the surviving Who members, Daltrey and Pete Townshend.

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The abundance of terrific footage from the era is perhaps a direct reflection of the shared interest that first drew Lambert and Stamp together when they met while working as assistants at Shepperton Studios in the early ‘60s -- they were both film lovers and aspiring directors in thrall to the French New Wave. They didn’t set out to make a mark on popular-music history. Rather, their impetus was to find a band they could take under their inexperienced wings and steer to a sufficient degree of success to make a movie about them, thus providing the would-be auteurs with an entrée into the film biz.

Townshend reflects that “irreverence” is probably the wrong word to describe their approach, since that would imply that they weren’t fully invested in the process. But there’s undeniably a larkish, make-it-up-as-we-go spirit that characterizes Lambert and Stamp’s role in molding the raw talent of the High Numbers, as the group was originally called, into rock royalty.

Townshend’s art school chum Richard Barnes observes that Lambert and Stamp were such inherently different types that they seemed almost like characters out of a sitcom. Indeed there is a certain odd-couple, buddy-movie vibe to Cooper’s film that feeds its ample humor.

Lambert was the terribly posh son of the celebrated classical composer and conductor Constant Lambert, and the godchild of Margot Fonteyn. An Oxford-educated, well-traveled polyglot who was as openly gay as was possible at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in England, he is first seen cruising around Beverly Hills in the back of a Rolls, expounding on the demise of opera and the symphony and heralding pop as the new frontier. Barnes jokes of the dedicated chain smoker: “We think he used one match in his whole life to light the first cigarette.” One of Lambert’s earliest film jobs was as a cameraman on John Hemming’s dangerous Iriri River expedition into unexplored country in Brazil in 1961.

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Stamp, on the other hand, was an unvarnished London East Ender whose father was a Thames tugboat captain. His brother, the actor Terence Stamp, describes him as “a rough, tough fighting sort of spiv,” whose only notable interest was in girls. It’s inferred that his working-class background and Lambert’s sexuality gave them an outsider status in common that overcame any barriers of class.

Refreshingly, Lambert's sexual orientation never appears to have caused any problem for the straight guys in his orbit. Townshend even grumbles amusingly that he never made a pass, making him feel unattractive, while Daltrey says he was the first toff ever to speak to him without condescension.

While combing music venues for a band to launch, they were drawn to a dingy club with lines of scooters parked outside, where Daltrey, Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon pumped out feedback-heavy sounds from the stage for a crowd of mesmerized Mods. With no music-industry experience and no connections, Lambert and Stamp had only chutzpah to recommend them, but the guys, in what was to become The Who, liked the shtick of these instinctive ideas men.

This influential period in British pop culture has been widely documented elsewhere -- not to mention depicted in dramatized form in the 1979 film Quadrophenia, based on The Who’s concept album. But the footage here, coupled with the incisive commentary, is bracingly immersive. While Stamp says his thing was “Trotsky rhetoric,” Lambert excelled at erudite social commentary, distilling the teen Mod gestalt (in television interviews in German and French, as well as English) into an eruption of revolutionary self-empowerment and rule-flaunting that served to forestall the post-20 slide into middle-class convention. Lambert and Stamp positioned The Who at the center of this ferment as a whole new philosophy in popular music, which stood apart from what the Beatles or Stones were doing.

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While the band and its managers for many years were spending more than they earned, Lambert shared “his aristocratic expertise in how to get by with no money,” as Townshend puts it. But his influence was felt in other ways, too, throwing Purcell recordings and other classical music championed by his father at Townshend to inform his understanding of structure and melody.

Cooper deliberately jumps around in his chronicle, avoiding a restrictive timeline in favor of energizing non-linear curiosity. While less attention inevitably is given to the late Entwistle and Moon than to Daltrey and Townshend, pithy observations illuminate the contributions and personalities of all four musicians. Accounts of friction within the band – particularly before Daltrey tamed his scrappy streetfighter nature and stopped taking the bait of Moon’s goading cruelty – are especially absorbing.

However, the most compelling conflict emerges with the slow disintegration of Lambert and Stamp’s relationship to The Who, which started with the release of “Tommy.” Townshend is both forthright and self-protective in his account of the gestation of that rock-opera concept album and the eventual 1975 Ken Russell movie, conceding that Lambert helped identify a through-line in a postwar story that began as a more amorphous spiritual allegory.

Lambert and Stamp naturally assumed that they would produce and direct the film version, fulfilling their long-stalled ambition. But Townshend balked at the idea and the deal went in another direction. This also caused a rift between the management partners. Stamp got an executive producer credit on the movie, while lead producer Robert Stigwood shut Lambert out due to his escalating drug habit.

The pain of that period, plus subsequent lawsuits, professional separations and deaths might threaten to cast a downbeat pall over a film about collaboration. But its water-under-the-bridge sense of Zen-like acceptance makes the final section incredibly poignant. The graciousness shown by Daltrey perhaps instigates this resolution, but it’s Stamp’s humor and rough-hewn wisdom that make it resonate. When he discusses letting go of the dream to make a great film that he had carried around since he was 16, the hard-won peace of the man is beautiful, made even more so by the knowledge of his death since these interviews were shot.

Needless to say, the ageless music of The Who courses through the film like electricity, along with that of other artists associated with Lambert and Stamp, among them Jimi Hendrix (whom they signed to a record deal before they even had a label). One clip in which Townshend gives Lambert and Stamp a first acoustic taste of “Glittering Girl” is a gem.

Editor Tellefsen’s credits are in narrative features, and this marks an impressive step into documentary, incorporating lively graphic elements and image manipulation, and making extensive use of black and white on new interviews to integrate them among the vintage clips. Cooper tells a full-bodied story in this fast-paced two hours, harnessing the chaotic energy of two men who generated a whirl of unconventional ideas and strategies.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

With: Chris Stamp, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Terence Stamp, Heather Daltry, John Hemming, Richard Barnes, Robert Fearnley-Whittingstall, Irish Jack

Production companies: Motocinema, Harms/Cooper

Director: James D. Cooper

Producers: Loretta Harms, Douglas Graves

Executive producers: Loretta Harms, Mark Mullen

Director of photography: James D. Cooper

Music: The Who

Editor: Christopher Tellefsen

Sales: Motocinema

No rating, 117 minutes