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Sundance Film Review: ‘Lambert & Stamp’

James D. Cooper's impeccably directed debut is a definitive screen bio of the Who and its-rock operatic rise.

With:

Chris Stamp, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Terence Stamp, Richard Barnes, Heather Daltrey, John Hemming, Robert Fearnley-Whittingstall, Irish Jack. (English, French, German dialogue)

Named for the cinephilic pair of Swinging Londoners who figured that managing the Who would be a good way to get a movie made, “Lambert & Stamp” belatedly realizes their 50-year-old dream. Impeccably directed by first-time documentarian James D. Cooper, the pic, chock-full of tooth-rattling ’60s Who tunes, also serves as a definitive screen bio of the band and its rock-operatic rise, and as an incisive portrait of the two men, Chris Stamp and the late Kit Lambert, who were crucial to making that happen. At least in ancillary, the film’s wallop should rival that from Keith Moon’s kick drum.

Not just for the “maximum R&B” group’s legion of fans, “Lambert & Stamp” stands to appeal to anyone interested in ’60s British pop culture, proto-indie entrepreneurship and/or the interpersonal dynamics involved in any collaborative art.

Lambert, son of a classical musician, died in 1981 and is seen and heard here only in snippets. But the talking-head testimonies of his business partner Stamp and the surviving half of the Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, are plenty open and articulate enough to give one a vivid sense of how six disparate and complexly difficult personalities fit well together for the better part of a decade.

Having met as Shepperton Studios assistants in the early ’60s, the cultured Lambert and scrappy Stamp, both lovers of the French New Wave, imagined making an epic verite documentary about a rock band; all they needed was the rock band.

What they found in ’64 (the year of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”) was the Who: factory-working frontman Daltrey; art-school student and guitarist Townshend; tax office employee and bassist John Entwistle; and Moon, a radio repairman and born drummer. In Cooper’s film, Stamp (younger brother of the actor Terence Stamp, who’s also interviewed here) hilariously recalls more or less hustling the Who into accepting him and Lambert, business novices, as their new managers. These two had no money, no connections and no knowledge of rock — but they had wily passion, which of course is everything.

Cooper’s dense montage includes tantalizing pieces of a French-language film made by Lambert and Stamp in the mid-’60s — a vaguely Godardian mix of the intellectual and the libidinal, with Lambert confidently holding forth on the “mod movement” and its relation to British youth and class. There’s also priceless footage of Townshend offering an embryonic version of “Glittering Girl” on acoustic guitar for the approval of Lambert, whom the film reveals to have been central to the Who’s artistic evolution — and not only for giving Townshend a few of his father’s classical music LPs.

Skillfully assembling vintage images not only of the band but of London youth culture in its glory, the film shows how all things mod led to a darker, more dangerous vibe — which for the Who meant playing apocalyptically clamorous music and smashing their instruments. Such onstage chaos came to visit the band and its managers backstage, as “Tommy” brought money, drug and alcohol abuse, competitiveness, paranoia, and, eventually, the sad severing of ties between Lambert and Stamp and the Who.

To their credit, those interviewed here are honest enough to admit that certain wounds still haven’t fully healed. Stamp says Townshend never gave sufficient credit to Lambert for his role in creating “Tommy,” while Townshend can’t help accusing the long-dead Lambert of having appropriated his ideas. As much as the movie rocks, “Lambert & Stamp” drops the needle to reveal the deep pain barely hidden in the grooves.

Working with a treasure trove of footage and some of the greatest rock songs ever recorded, Cooper and editor Christopher Tellefsen tweak the images every which way and maintain a propulsive rhythm for nearly two hours; even the digitally simulated jiggle of celluloid here has a wicked beat.

Sundance Film Review: 'Lambert & Stamp'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 2014. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) A Motocinema presentation of a Harms/Cooper production. (International sales: Motocinema, New York.) Produced by James D. Cooper, Loretta Harms, Douglas Graves. Executive producer, Mark Mullen.

Crew:

Directed by James D. Cooper. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Cooper; editor, Christopher Tellefsen; sound, Ron Bochar; visual effects, Company3Design; line producer, Bona Orakwue; associate producer, W. Wilder Knight II.

With:

Chris Stamp, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Terence Stamp, Richard Barnes, Heather Daltrey, John Hemming, Robert Fearnley-Whittingstall, Irish Jack. (English, French, German dialogue)

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