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When you’re intimately familiar with astory, it’s hard to know if your telling of it is too inside-baseball. At the very beginning of Lambert & Stamp, a documentary about the fake-it-till-you-make-it managers of the Who, first-time director James D. Cooper drops viewers into a narrative that feels as if a preceding chapter ending with, “Wait, wait, back up a minute!” has been lobbed off.
The film becomes a game of recognition. There’s Pete Townshend, obviously. A white-haired chap, according to the lower-third text, is Christopher Stamp, half of the titular pair. His late friend and business partner, Kit Lambert, is ID-ed in archival footage. Whoa, Terence Stamp! (Christopher’s badass brother.) Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, John Entwistle. Right.
But does John Hemming ring a bell? Richard Barnes? How about Robert Fearnley-Whittingstall? Of the three, Barnes gets a pass—it’s eventually clear that in whatever capacity, he’s with the band, but you’ll likely have to look him up. The other two are so tangential that Cooper’s failure to offer identification other than their names—or, really, his decision to include them at all—is a misjudgment that goes beyond freshman oversight and into Ed Wood sloppiness.
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That may seem like nitpicking, but similar omissions and, more importantly, a critical lack of linearity sink Lambert & Stamp as a whole. The gist of the film is that two lost young men—one working class (Stamp) and one the Oxford-educated son of a celebrated composer (Lambert)—formed a friendship and decided they wanted to make movies. Instead, they ended up managing a band called the High Numbers, soon to be rechristened as the Who. The two had neither experience nor money, yet somehow their on-the-fly brainstorming—with a little help from Lambert’s musical blood and Townshend’s shameless acceptance of being anointed the group’s leader—shaped a clueless quartet of kids into icons of rock.
It’s best, though, to give up on the idea of learning the specifics of this history (Stamp’s only interest was “dancing girls?” Moon refused to sign “some documents?” Why is Lambert’s Brazil expedition important, again?) and enjoy the two hours as a series of recollections and performance clips, including a terrific few minutes of Jimi Hendrix. You’ll have to tune out distractions like interviews arbitrarily shot in either color or black and white; Cooper frequently mumbling follow-up questions from off camera while talking to Stamp; puzzling lens flares; and a whirling camera near the end of the film. Also, Lambert looks exactly like Mr. Bean.
Lambert & Stamp does enlighten in some ways. Townshend, for example, is not only a windmiller but a windbag, often waxing philosophical while looking like he’s trying really hard to follow the trail in his own head. It’s also entertaining to be reminded of how different behavioral expectations are when your job isn’t in an office but onstage: “Roger wonderfully agreed to stop hitting people,” Stamp says. Aside from Townshend’s self-seriousness, most of the memories—even of conflicts—are told with warmth. When the credits roll, you feel closer to the Who and its inner circle, regardless of whether most details of its rise escape you.
Lambert & Stamp opens May 1 at E Street Cinema and Shirlington 7.