James Lavelle has enjoyed, or perhaps endured, a music career that bears no exact parallels elsewhere in the business. And yet, as told by the often scattered, sometimes exhausting yet ultimately quite insightful documentary “The Man from Mo’Wax,” it’s hard to find a more vivid symbol for the tumultuous turnovers of the record business over the past three decades. As the teenage DJ prodigy-turned-label-owner-turned-London scenester-turned-creative nucleus of electronic-music act UNKLE, Lavelle displayed a restless, collaborative artistic promiscuousness that prefigured much of contemporary “curator” culture, while his high-flying lifestyle and ambitious label deals already seem like ancient relics of a fatter bygone age. Weaving together a dizzying array of archival material and previously unseen personal home movies, director Matthew Jones never quite cracks the man behind the music, but he nonetheless offers an appropriately hyperactive snapshot of a colorful era.
While proceeding through Lavelle’s life roughly from the cradle to the present day, “The Man from Mo’Wax” assumes a certain degree of familiarity with his career and celebrity that may limit commercial prospects Stateside, but there’s plenty here even for those who don’t know which parts of “What Does Your Soul Look Like” are which. Jones struck gold when both Lavelle and DJ Shadow opened their personal video vaults to him, and even if he does rely on a number of talking-head interviews, the film feels largely primary-source.
Raised in Oxford, the gawky, bespectacled Lavelle managed to become a skilled DJ and voracious record collector at an alarmingly young age, playing his first gig at 14 and launching his first record label, Mo’ Wax, when he was only 18. Mo’ Wax was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the convergence of golden-age American hip-hop, early Britpop and the latter days of acid-house culture, and by the time Lavelle turned 21 he was already a very wealthy tastemaker with a major label deal. Vintage footage from an MTV interview with the polite yet insinuatingly cocky label boss provides a snapshot of nearly Shakespearean hubris.
Though the label attracted interesting acts and visual artists, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Mo’ Wax released its first real masterpiece, when Lavelle signed a brilliant, low-key California artist named DJ Shadow, whose hugely influential debut “Endtroducing … ” gave the imprint a whole new status. (Lavelle’s own video footage of Shadow climbing over literal mountains of vinyl in the basement of Sacramento’s Rare Record is worth the price of admission alone — this is less like crate digging than crate spelunking.)
More than just his flagship signing, DJ Shadow became Lavelle’s partner for his first real forays as an artist, with the two collaborating as UNKLE for 1998’s “Psyence Fiction.” It’s here, after what has essentially been a long highlight reel, that Jones finds his film’s tragic bromance, as the two men move from near-brotherly closeness to a swift falling out over the course of the long recording session. By this point Lavelle had become a British celebrity in his own right, appearing on talk shows, designing his own shoes, and even selling plush dolls in his likeness.
Obviously, Lavelle is set up for a fall. As with a number of other high-flash record business facilitators, it’s clear that none of this music could have been created without Lavelle’s input, but it’s sometimes not entirely clear what his specific contributions were, and this becomes particularly important as major label consolidation splinters Mo’ Wax, and the rise of Napster cripples the value of back catalogs. Lavelle recruits and then parts bitterly with a procession of collaborators, racks up huge debts to finance disappointing projects, and sees his druggy, jet-setting lifestyle ruin relationships.
As a cautionary tale, Lavelle’s story doesn’t add many novel lessons: Take it easy on the parties, watch your money, and maybe try to be a bit nicer to the people you pass on the way to the top. But watching firsthand as he sits through humbling business meetings and anxiously tries to cobble together an uninspired late UNKLE album on a strict deadline is every bit as soul-crushing as the early footage of Lavelle palling around with Thom Yorke and Jarvis Cocker is exhilarating. Armed with a bit of perspective — he takes Jones’ camera on a tour of his massive storage space, in which crates of records and unsold James Lavelle merch sit collecting dust — Lavelle gets to experience a “This Is Your Life” moment when he’s asked to curate London’s Meltdown art festival, reuniting him with key figures from his past.
Jones’ film covers a lot of ground, and in the earlygoing it’s easy to lose track of various names and dates, as album covers strobe by and Lavelle alienates friends who we’re scarcely even been introduced to. A bit of judicious cutting — and perhaps a better intro to Lavelle’s UNKLE project, whose genesis and pre-Shadow years are never mentioned here — could have made for a more complete picture. Editor Alec Rossiter does admirable work to keep the doc moving along, though, and a number of Jones’ visual aids — particularly his vinyl bar graph tracing the plunge of UNKLE’s album sales — are cheekily instructive.