The success of any music act is obviously dependent on their having hit songs, but it’s the story behind a band that makes them truly notable. The Who might have slipped out some popular tunes at their start if left to their own devices, although they’d likely have still been called The High Numbers on those records. History went another way, however, and thanks to a seemingly incompatible pair of filmmakers turned businessmen, the renamed band became one of the most iconic rock acts of all time.
Lambert & Stamp is a documentary focused on that pair and their story alongside that of The Who. Kit Lambert and Christopher Stamp met while working at a movie studio in the early 1960s and decided the best way for them to become important directors, like Jean-Luc Godard, was to find and manage and document a rock band, become famous through that and then transition to making more artistic ventures. They wound up continuing to work with The Who for a decade and even expanded their presence in the music industry by founding a record company and working with Jimi Hendrix and others.
The duo didn’t stop filming, fortunately, and a lot of the footage they shot is now part of the wealth of archival material in this documentary. James D. Cooper, a former collaborator of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (he shot Brother’s Keeper and parts of the first two Paradise Lost films), makes his directorial debut here, and he’s compiled old films of the scene and era as well as foreign programs featuring interviews with Lambert speaking fluent French and German and more. As is normal these days, some of those clips are available on their own online, including that initial High Numbers film by Lambert and Stamp.
This documentary does not exist to show you much of an exclusive on 40- to 50-year-old footage. Its true value is in its oral history of Lambert and Stamp’s partnership and the rise of The Who. Stamp died in 2012, but Cooper managed to get some extensive interviews with him, plus a few recent scenes of him interacting with Roger Daltrey and Heather Daltrey and attending the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors as they ennobled The Who, before he passed. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend form the bulk of the rest of the storytelling, with some help from actor Terence Stamp (Chris’s brother) and other participants in and witnesses to relevant events.
There are two things worth observing over the course of this two-hour tale. One is the progression of the interviews as they go through the exciting beginnings of the band and then through the more difficult years of the partnership. The latter half of the film is not as concise nor clear as the first half, and a lot of that has to do with the way the better times are more enthusiastically addressed. Maybe its because the positive myth-making of that side of any band’s history is more often covered and so is stronger in the memory and therefore more fluidly relayed by those who experienced both the events and their constant retellings.
But when going over the side involving fights, disputable circumstances, etc., particularly Chris Stamp and Townshend are slower in their flow of words, clearly being more careful about what they say, what they recall. In the second half of the film we get more moments where Stamp is accompanied by Heather Daltrey and where Townshend is in conversation with Roger Daltrey, as if the events from the recording of Tommy to the 1975 departure of Lambert and Stamp as The Who’s managers require collaborative and/or corroborative anecdote.
The other thing to notice is how incongruent the title pair is in this film. Not how incompatible they were as is stated in the interviews, not the differences in one being the higher-society son of classical composer Constant Lambert and the other being the working class son of a tugboat captain or that the former was homosexual and latter was not. Lambert has a remarkable presence in the archival material, through old interviews and other footage. Stamp, on the other hand, is hardly distinguishable in those clips, but he’s quite exuberant in the newer material shot for this documentary. We never do get a good impression of these personalities together, so it’s not easy to ever understand their working relationship.
I’m not sure if Lambert & Stamp covers much of anything that hardcore fans of The Who don’t already know. But it’s not about that, even if it’s sure to enlighten a number of people who aren’t familiar with the band’s history let alone the story of their early management team. The success of any documentary is obviously dependent on their having interesting content, but it’s the way that content is presented that make them truly notable. This one is notable for the way the story, which could just as well be read in a book or listened to in a radio interview, is told through interviews that are revealing not just in the verbal but also the visual, in the physical mannerisms and emotionality.
This review was originally published on April 24, 2015.