‘Lambert & Stamp’: Spotlight shifts to two who made the Who

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By Bruce Ingram | For Sun-Times Media

Even if you’re a hardcore Who fan, you may not know the band was initially conceived as a sort of cinema-verité cultural lab experiment — a how-to movie about the creation of a pop phenomenon.

It’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the movie never got made. The aspiring filmmakers who came up with the idea soon found themselves far too busy hustling the group toward superstar status without money, experience or connections. They shot some priceless footage for the film, though, that now serves as a fascinating backdrop for this documentary that’s more about the Who’s wildly improbable managers than the group itself.

The first thing we learn about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp is that they shouldn’t, according to all reasonable expectations, have had two words to say to each other. Lambert, the son of composer-conductor Constant Lambert, was Oxford-educated, culturally sophisticated and gay. And Stamp was the street-fighting son of an East End tugboat captain, characterized by his brother, actor Terence Stamp, as “a rough, tough, fighting spiv.”

Yet, when they met at Shepperton Studios, where both were working as young second-assistant directors, they formed an instant and powerful bond — in part thanks to their mutual love of French New Wave cinema. And they decided the quickest way to make a name for themselves as directors would be to find an unknown rock band, guide it to enormous success and document the process on film.

They searched for months in 1964 before finding Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon performing as the High Numbers in a “sordid and grotty” basement pub in London — and dazzled them with their confidence and their willingness to break the rules. Including moving to an exclusive Belgravia address that allowed them to exploit the British class system for scandalous amounts of credit they had no intention of repaying. “I fell in love, literally, with both of them, immediately,” says Townshend, interviewed here with Daltrey and Stamp, who died in 2012 but here is full of energetic delight while recalling most of his memories. Lambert died in 1981 after becoming a heroin addict in the 1970s, but he is well-represented by archival interviews.

“Lambert & Stamp” is at its best when it chronicles the high-wire act of the band’s early years, as the pair guided the band through ever-greater levels of success. They were always broke, even after numerous hit records, partly because of the group’s trademark (and management-approved) destruction of equipment on stage. And the film makes it clear that the team was very much a part of the creative output of the band. Especially Lambert, who served as the group’s recording producer and encouraged Townshend to stretch himself as a composer — particularly with the rock opera “Tommy.”

“Tommy” was a turning point for the Who, suddenly turning the band members into millionaires, and almost equally suddenly setting the group, for the first time, against the management team. The first rift occurred when Lambert claimed more credit for the creative concept than Townshend felt was right. But the second, far more serious one arose when the group decided not to allow Lambert and Stamp to direct the movie version of “Tommy” — in effect denying them the chance to fulfill their original ambition.

The film becomes predictable, and unfortunately a bit muddled, while chronicling that final, acrimonious period that ended in a legal battle. Yet, decades later, when Stamp looks back on the whole story, he gives bitterness short shrift and prefers to remember his relationships within the group — particularly with Lambert.

“We spurred each other on,” he said. “We were loving to each other. We were there for each other in a sensitive and frightening way.”

[s3r star=3/4]

Sony Pictures Classics presents a documentarydirected by James D. Cooper. Running time: 117 minutes. Rated R (for language, some drug content and brief nudity). OpensFriday atAMC River East 21 and Landmark Century Centre.

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