Who would make a movie about The Who in which the members of the legendary British rock band are supporting characters?
But that’s what documentary filmmaker James D. Cooper does in “Lambert & Stamp,” and the result is a fresh and invigorating film that avoids many of the clichés of the “rockumentary.”
For starters, the film focuses not on Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, but on the band’s original managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert. The duo had no intention of becoming rock band managers, but were aspiring filmmakers who bonded over their love of movies, especially the rush of New Wave films from France like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.” They thought a similar film could be made about the growing British mod scene of the early 1960s, when teenagers dressed sharp and rejected their parents’ working-class values.
So they hunted around London clubs looking for a band to “cast” as the star of their film, and they found Daltrey, Townshend and company bashing away in a local club. The grainy black-and-white footage they shot is unlike any concert film I’ve seen from that era; instead of being held back at a respectful distance, the camera is right there in the middle of the dancing, swirling crowd.
Lambert and Stamp became equal creative partners in The Who, molding their onstage persona and pushing them (Townshend in particular) to become wilder and more ambitious in their music. The apex of their collaboration was the 1969 rock opera “Tommy.” “Tommy” made everyone in the band millionaires, but it also began to fracture the relationships between band members and their managers. When it came time to make a “Tommy” film in 1975, Lambert and Stamp’s longtime dream, the band instead hired Ken Russell to direct it.
Lambert fell into heroin addiction in the 1970s and died in 1981, so much of the recollection in “Lambert & Stamp” falls to Stamp. A working class bloke with a mischievous twinkle in his eye (his older brother happens to be “Limey” actor Terence Stamp), Stamp is a marvelous raconteur, and much of the delight in watching the film is listening to him tell stories about the band’s formation. Townshend and Daltrey give perceptive commentary as well that goes beyond the usual “Behind the Music” quotes, such as when they talk frankly about wild-man drummer Keith Moon’s manic depression.
The film gets a little unfocused toward the end, including unnecessary scenes showing Townshend and Daltrey being feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. We didn’t need that kind of official stamp of approval to know that The Who was a great band. It’s all there in that early footage in those mod clubs, all masterminded by Lambert and Stamp. ￼