Although the subjects of Lambert & Stamp are no doubt familiar to Who obsessives, casual fans are more likely to echo one of the band's song titles — "Who are you?" — upon hearing their names. But as James D. Cooper's illuminating documentary makes clear, and as surviving Who members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey readily confirm, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were equal partners in shaping the band, with Lambert exerting particular influence by playing Henry Higgins to Townshend's Eliza Doolittle.
The pair made for a superficially odd couple: The natty, Oxford-educated Lambert — son of classical composer and conductor Constant Lambert — was gay, whereas working-class yob Stamp was a gleeful skirt-chaser. Both, however, were movie-besotted and in thrall to the French New Wave, especially Jean-Luc Godard, and when they met while working at Shepperton Studios, they felt a powerful, immediate kinship. Despairing of ever rising above their station as second assistant directors, they lighted on the daft notion of making a cinéma vérité documentary about the ascension of a rock & roll band, which would necessitate first finding and then managing a group. At the time, 1964, neither man had a compelling interest in or any real knowledge of rock music: The band they sought was intended merely as a gateway to eventual careers as film directors.
Spotting an impressively long line of mods snaking outside a London club, Lambert and Stamp squeezed inside and stumbled on their grail: the nascent Who, then known as the High Numbers. Signing the band through force of personality — Daltrey recalls that Lambert was the first "posh" guy he'd ever met — and the even more alluring promise of a weekly salary, the first-time managers set to work. Despite their inexperience, the pair served as exceptional buzz generators, and Lambert proved rock-music adept, both molding Townshend as a songwriter and strongly influencing the band's sound as album producer. Under Lambert and Stamp's admittedly erratic guidance, the Who rose to stardom with surprising swiftness.
Sadly, by the time the band was reaching the thin-air Everest heights of Tommy in 1969, Lambert was already beginning his own long descent, undone by addiction and Townshend's increasing creative independence. Eventually, both managers were forced out — in a final indignity, Stamp was given the sack at the same Shepperton Studios where he first encountered his partner — and Lambert met his dissolute end in 1981. Perhaps the most devastating irony of Lambert and Stamp's career is that although the Who's music actually served as the basis for two films, Tommy and Quadrophenia, their own directorial aspirations went unfulfilled.
The film will perhaps frustrate those hoping for a larger sampling of the band's music — which is heard largely in fragments — but with its propulsive, densely edited collage of archival footage and contemporary interviews, Lambert & Stamp displays the same raw, chaotic energy as a vintage Who performance. Townshend and Daltrey offer perceptive, ruminative observations on their younger selves, but the film's clear star is the roguish, hilariously forthright Stamp, who died in 2012. Lambert's absence is keenly felt — we long for his perspective — but Stamp is so lively and engaging in his interviews that he seems to reanimate his long-dead partner through vivid reminiscence.
A 50-year gestation and a surrogate director may have been required, but Lambert and Stamp have at last managed to deliver the revelatory documentary they conceived so long ago.
Lambert & Stamp Directed by James D. Cooper. Starring Christopher Stamp, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Terrence Stamp and Irish Jack. Opens Friday, May 8, at the Landmark Tivoli Theatre.
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