The Who Doc Lambert & Stamp Is the Rare Truthful Rock 'n' Roll Film

Townshend and Lambert, plotting to win your love
Townshend and Lambert, plotting to win your love
Courtesy Tom Wright/Sony Pictures Classics

Is it possible to be accidentally definitive? James D. Cooper's thorough and revealing doc Lambert & Stamp is billed as the story of the managers who whipped the Who into being the Who. But once it's sketched out the characters and ambitions of Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, putative New Wave filmmakers who got into rock 'n' roll for want of a chance to make a movie, Lambert & Stamp just happens to illuminate the glory and tumult of the band's rise with unexpected candor.

This isn't myth-burnishing hokum of the sort peddled by the Beatles-Industrial Complex. Instead, it's a frank examination and celebration of the way this odd-duck cineaste duo — a working-class Godard freak and his posh gay compatriot, the son of a composer — urged this brash, centerless, unstylish band of street toughs and art students into the rock pantheon. Pete Townshend speaks with some pride of having mastered one of Lambert's principal lessons: Great pop success comes from reflecting the audience back on itself. “I don't write songs about me,” Townshend exclaims. “I write them about you!”

Lambert and Stamp's plan wasn't to midwife the birth of immortal classic rockers. Instead, originally, it was to discover a band, manage them to success, and then direct a movie about them — a round-robin route to breaking into filmmaking. The duo never achieved that goal, but they did, after several touch-and-go years of early Who hits and too little cash, finally hit it huge as record producers and label heads. Their Track Records, in England, was home to Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Brown, and Thunderclap Newman, all of whom scored No. 1s before the Who did. But this film, unlike so many docs about popular musicians, isn't chart-minded. Cooper's interest is in the collaboration between the talent and its managers, in the way the duo urged their charges to begin to conceive of their sound, look, marketing, and live performances as all expressive of a singular vision.

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Much of the story comes from Stamp, who holds forth in candid, sometimes biting recent interviews. Lambert encouraged Townshend to study Henry Purcell yet also to write songs about the kids in the crowd. The managers even cast that crowd at the band's first large London showcase concert, packing the hall with the sharply attired and the hip, and as we watch the Who bash their instruments to smithereens we're told in voiceover that this had much to do with the bombed-out destruction young Londoners had grown up with, with a rejection of a new plugged-in life that everyone knew was still rigged to keep them stuck and docile in their separate classes. The vintage footage is crisp black-and-white, often shot by Lambert and Stamp themselves: skinny, sweaty mods losing their shit with an abandon that makes A Hard Day's Night look like a church social. One priceless sequence cuts between Townshend onstage, skronking feedback out of his guitar, and a young TV host, rhapsodizing about the mod movement, expressing concern that this colossus of a generation might, in twenty years or so, become arch-conservatives.

The film's alive with fresh anecdotes: Who can forget the American who managed the Who's first tour of the States, who as a precaution alerted the band to the local age-of-consent laws each time their plane touched down? Who milestones pass quickly — nobody even mentions the great Who Sell Out LP. But the film is marvelous about process, about the challenge of getting fractious creative types to unite, about how decades later, old fights can still sting. Stamp and Townshend offer conflicting testimony about how much work Lambert, who died in 1981, did to shape Tommy into a coherent whole.

In one surprising present-day interview, Townshend and Roger Daltrey are on camera together, talking to each other rather than to us. Townshend recalls how Daltrey had to vow not to try to win intra-band arguments with violence, and Daltrey nods, slightly abashed. Later, Townshend speaks movingly about Keith Moon's depressions, about hearing the others carp about him behind his back, about periods when the band suffered because Townshend and Daltrey were failing to communicate. It's hard not to get the sense, as the air grows more tender between them, that they might never have really talked about this. Elsewhere, alone, Townshend marvels at the musicianship of Moon, John Entwistle, and Daltrey, who founded the band but, in Townshend's estimation, was lost within it during the early Lambert and Stamp era, only finding his way as a frontman when Townshend's writing embraced the theatricality of Tommy. Like everyone onscreen, Daltrey and Townshend are disarmingly honest — the film even admits that “Magic Bus” kind of sucks, something The Beatles Anthology wouldn't dare with, say, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

There's tragedy to come, of course, in the 1970s. For mods and pop stars and rock 'n' rollers, that decade was a drag. Townshend comes close to blaming the Who's artistic struggles on the management team's scattered attention — and Lambert's heroin addiction. That's curious and a touch amusing: Townshend won't give him great credit for Tommy, but he admits he really could have used his help crafting Lifehouse, which became Who's Next, and Quadrophenia. Like Tommy, the latter became a film; unlike Tommy, that film, from '79, is a good one. Curiously, Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia feels something like the epic London New Wave pastiche Lambert and Stamp dreamed of making themselves — by the time of its production, Lambert and Stamp had long since been sacked, but there's no way it would have existed (or confounded so many kids) without them. Nice work, gents. Like this movie, it's the rare truthful and beautiful film about the rock 'n' roll life.

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