James D. Cooper’s documentary on the masterminds behind ‘The Who’ is experimental, refreshing

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London, 1964 — the mod movement is in motion. Waves of youth rebellion and postwar frustration sweep over the droves of concertgoers swarming to dance halls, scooters in tow. Under Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp’s management, four young musicians would harness this explosion of energy and transform it into the raucous sound of their generation: the Who.

Lambert and Stamp’s improbable professional partnership finds its start in James D. Cooper’s shockingly impressive directorial debut, aptly titled “Lambert and Stamp.” Enter East Ender Stamp, the son of a tugboat captain, and posh Lambert, the Oxford-educated son of a prominent English composer. Despite their differing social classes, a love of jazz, literature and the French New Wave unite the two assistant film directors in an absurd scheme to make it big: discover a band, mentor it to success and then film the band for a breakthrough entrance into cinema. How’s that for taking the long and winding road?

Whether the two possessed a lick of knowledge about rock music, industry connections or financial management was beside the point — no one did spectacular plans quite as well as the management duo. “We never said we knew how to do it,” Stamp says in the film. The unlikely pairing of the intellectual, openly gay Lambert — out during a time when homosexuality was outlawed — and rough, street-tough Stamp was the ideal drawing board for unconventional dreams.

Stamp passed away in 2012, and Lambert died in 1981. But Cooper’s meticulously crafted, 10-year span of archival footage and interviews succeeds in immortalizing the titans behind the Who’s international acclaim. It enthralls us with their no-holds-barred determination to scout out, mentor and manage raw talent — regardless of the odds. And with spark and charm, the documentary paints realistic portraits of the collaborators behind the meteoric rise of the the Who, all with a certain irreverent quality that lends them an air of capriciousness and intrigue.

Iconic English rock band the Who typifies rebelliousness in its onstage recklessness and wild antics. To be clear, the group’s “wow” factor is not in their looks — Stamp’s family even feared the band was too ugly to be popular — so much as in its remarkable ability to personify the high-tension emotions of London youth. Vast expenditures are given the green light in the name of creative output: Cooper makes wicked sport of the outrageous publicity stunts seen on their road to stardom — from flagrant outfit copping to all-expenses-paid onstage instrument wreckage to cheeky marketing acts such as the 100 Faces.

Beyond retelling of the glory days, the film imparts the souring of a professional relationship with depth and detail. In heartfelt anecdotes, band members recount friction over artsy endeavors such as the rock opera, “Tommy.” Cooper ups the ante in a draggy second half of the film as Lambert and Stamp battle their respective vices. They teeter on the brink of addiction before sliding into a tragic fallout with their proteges — in an ironic twist, the junkie managers are fired by the band they made big. Cooper gets inside their heads and fleshes out the unpredictable inner dynamics of a hotbed of ideas. His sensitive portrayal renders their failure and fallibility as noteworthy as their fame.

Cooper’s filmmaking aesthetic has the makings of an experimental design, with a reach beyond the New Wave. Working outside of any single method of exhibiting material, his complex visual style blends grainy period footage of shows, cleanly composed studio interviews, snappy jump cuts and casual recordings of the band members.

The film is good fun despite its loose and sprawling exposition. It won’t keep fans on the edge of their seats, but its broad perspective imparts a sense of the level of artistic synergy necessary to the Who’s stardom. Well worthy of notice as a masterpiece of storytelling, “Lambert and Stamp” mesmerizes with its candid account of decadence, nostalgia, defiance and two generations working in tandem to transform youth culture from the inside out.

‘Lambert and Stamp’ opens in Berkeley on April 10. 

Contact Danielle Shi at [email protected].

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