If Michael Winterbottom was hoping the title “On the Road” would lend an associative shot of Kerouacian cred to his roving kinda-rock-doc, the finished film does little to live up to it. A less in-your-face retread of his 2004 vérité-style music romance “9 Songs,” the prolific director’s latest finds him treading water artistically, bringing few new ideas to the table in a supposedly unscripted project that’s half a visual tour diary for the British alternative band Wolf Alice and half a fictional backstage romance between two of their crew members. Neither component ever fully comes into its own, despite an appreciably roomy two-hour running time, and even its most audacious device — the undifferentiated braiding of pure documentary and narrative footage — feels a tad old hat relative to newer hybrid forms in nonfiction filmmaking.
Opening the Berlinale’s Generation 14plus program following a low-key premiere at last year’s London Film Festival, this amiable misfire will be of interest chiefly to Winterbottom completists and the Grammy-nominated band’s growing fanbase — distributors might not see much theatrical potential in that particular Venn diagram, but pushing its musical aspects could reap some rewards in ancillary. For Winterbottom, meanwhile, “On the Road” is merely another pitstop in a career that continues to meander all over the map in terms of genre and style. Whether or not the film is quite as dashed-off as its on-the-fly aesthetic would have you think, it’s the latest in a string of the director’s less completely formed works to suggest that his restless work ethic is a double-edged virtue.
Die-hard devotees of Wolf Alice — a London four-piece whose shoegaze-influenced neo-grunge contains just enough dark fantasy to honor the Angela Carter reference in their name — may be surprised to find that the band isn’t really the star of “On the Road,” even as all the film’s activity fundamentally revolves around them. As the title promises, this is essentially a road movie, connecting a string of the band’s U.K. gigs beginning with Belfast and ending in London. Though frontwoman Ellie Roswell and her three male cohorts exude dreamy onstage charisma in the film’s handful of clammily atmospheric concert sequences, they’re collectively a remote, even sullen, presence away from the bright lights.
It swiftly becomes clear that this isn’t going to be one of those “get to know the band” fan-service documentaries. Indeed, Winterbottom perhaps even has a little fun at their expense. The camera never addresses the quartet directly, but does passively observe their ill grace in a variety of uninspiring interview setups — most amusingly, a BBC Nottingham radio spot where they’re second on the docket after a dreary report on ash tree disease.
It’s frankly a relief when the film regularly drifts away from them to focus on the warmer dynamic between Londoner Estelle (Leah Harvey), a 21-year-old record-label rep and aspiring singer-songwriter, and Scotsman Joe (James McArdle), an affable, slightly older roadie. Meeting at the outset of the tour, they forge a casual connection that, through the sheer grinding proximity of tour-bus living, eventually morphs into something more. Seemingly improvised between the actors — the film credits no screenwriter — this isn’t exactly a love story for the ages so much as a portrait of two bored, somewhat lonely people making the best of what’s available.
That modesty is at once disarming and aggravating: Estelle and Joe’s low-stakes friendship with benefits is certainly credible, but it’s hard to see why audiences should invest much in these attractively indifferent characters. It’s certainly not for a series of tame hotel-room sex scenes that lack even the ballyhoo factor of similar action in “9 Songs,” nor for the sliver of a more troubled, compelling inner life that is fleetingly teased when James meets his mother (Winterbottom loyalist Shirley Henderson) for a faintly tense drink in a Glasgow pub. McArdle (whom the most eagle-eyed of “Star Wars” fans may recognize from a minor role in “The Force Awakens”) and Harvey are both promisingly likeable, lively-eyed performers, while the latter’s off-duty strumming and crooning is sweet enough to merit a gig spotlight of her own, but even their combined charms can’t sustain two hours of such noncommittal noodling.
Technically, “On the Road” is distinguished by Winterbottom’s usual brand of lightly scuffed polish, with cinematographer James Clarke (who also shot “Everyday” and “The Trip to Italy” for the helmer) honoring the project’s semi-pretense of documentary spontaneity while bringing a cultivated, khaki-hued sense of weather to proceedings. Sound design during the concert sequences is deliberately distorted, as it would be for those on ground — which only serves to emphasize the crystalline prettiness of Wolf Alice’s acoustic broadcast rendition of the single “Fluffy.” Finally, “On the Road” showcases the strengths of a band to which you’d rather listen than speak.