Rock ’n’ roll documentaries are hardly ever about the managers. But rock ’n’ roll managers are hardly ever as crucial or as charismatic as Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the odd couple who took a Mod R&B group in early ’60s London and turned them into the Who. “Lambert and Stamp,” a documentary lovingly and somewhat shambolically directed by James D. Cooper, gives the duo their due and in so doing opens up a singular view on an era, its energy, and its excesses. For fans, it’s a must-see; for others, a slightly overlong tour of a seminal pop explosion and the men who made it.
Kit and Chris couldn’t have been less alike. Lambert was upper-class, Oxford-educated, cultivated, gay; “He sounded like someone from the BBC,” someone recalls here. Stamp was the son of a tugboat captain whose own brother, actor Terence Stamp, describes him as a street-tough “spiv.” The two met on a film set, discovered they shared a taste for the French New Wave, and hatched a plan to break into the business: find a rock group and make a movie about them. It worked for Richard Lester and “A Hard Day’s Night,” dinnit?
Discovering one of the all-time great rock groups wasn’t actually part of the plan, but they rolled with it. Indeed, “Lambert and Stamp” makes a case that the duo, and Lambert in particular, molded the Who from its anarchic beginnings into a pop-art juggernaut with a gift for sonic outrage and auto-destruction. In the process, guitarist Pete Townshend was encouraged to become both a composer and an artist-intellectual, separating him from the other three members and positioning him as de facto leader. (This did not sit well with singer Roger Daltrey, who, after all, had founded the band. “Lambert and Stamp” obliquely acknowledges that what made the Who special, among other things, was the constant battles that turned the group into the premier squabbling family on the city block of classic rock ’n’ roll.)
Did Lambert structure “Tommy” and give it a plot? Stamp says yes; Townshend says, nahhh, not really. Lambert himself is unavailable, having died in 1981 of his various addictions. “Lambert and Stamp” rounds up the survivors for congenial solo and group interviews: Townshend, Daltrey, the latter’s wife Heather, longtime inner-circle member Richard “Barney” Barnes. Stamp, filmed before he died of cancer in 2012, cuts an arresting figure, white-haired and grinning — a very different man, and a wiser one, from the cold-eyed young scene-monger of the archival footage.
When Townshend refused to let the managers make the “Tommy” movie — only later did it become a Ken Russell screen extravaganza — the seeds of the split were sown. By the recording of the “Lifehouse”/“Who’s Next” project, the group was barely speaking to Stamp, and Lambert had begun his downward spiral. The Who eventually sued the two for “mis-management”; Stamp acidly notes that by that time the group owned the film studio, Shepperton, on which he and his partner had first met.
All water under the bridge these decades later. “Lambert and Stamp” has been directed as a collage of images and terrific early Who songs that sometimes wanders into the ozone, only to be brought back to earth by the memories of those still standing. From this vantage point, what’s most miraculous is that, almost by accident, Lambert and Stamp corralled the chaos of four unsightly, sulky talents and fashioned it into something for the ages. “We never said we knew how to do it,” admits Stamp. Somehow, they managed.
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