James D. Cooper’s Lambert & Stamp — a documentary about the managers of The Who and the group’s rise to fame and artistic credibility — spins a story almost too strange to be true. In 1962 Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp — two mismatched kindred spirits working at Shepperton Studios — were wanting to make their mark as filmmakers of the New Wave school. The idea they hatched to do this was at the very least circuitous, highly impractical and maybe just a little bit insane. The pair would find a rock group, shepherd them to fame, film the whole process and end up with this amazing art film documentary. Of course, that didn’t happen. But in the process of helping nurture and shape a group then calling themselves the High Numbers into what we now know as The Who, they did far more — even if it was largely accidental. It is this, as much as anything, that the film chronicles.
Lambert & Stamp is a sometimes messy — even somewhat chaotic — movie. This is a film that is so full of information and so intent on discussing every bit of that information that it manages not to cover Kit Lambert’s death, despite the fact that the movie is ostensibly about him. (It does no better in establishing Stamp’s death before the film was completed.) I don’t point this out as a criticism so much as an observation that the film is possibly too expansive not to be messy. With a story as rich as this, that almost rates nothing more than a shrug.
Of course, your interest in all of this is going to depend to a great degree on whether or not you’re a fan of The Who. I am, so factor that in. However, there’s more here than that. With or without The Who, the story of Lambert and Stamp is interesting in itself. Kit Lambert was the son of composer-conductor Constant Lambert. He came from money and privilege and was well educated. He was also gay. Chris Stamp (brother of Terence Stamp) was lower-class, the son of a tugboat captain and not gay. (And according to Roger Daltrey, Stamp tended to talk in an unintelligible Cockney accent — in sharp contrast to Lambert’s BBC-announcer English.) What the two had in common — apart from a desire to be filmmakers — was hard to imagine, but something about the pairing — both personally and professionally — clicked.
The film — which benefits greatly from the heavy use of footage from the Lambert-Stamp rock documentary that never was — is refreshingly candid and intimate, though some of it won’t be all that revelatory to anyone who has read Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am. (Considering the length of time Lambert & Stamp took to make, it’s not unlikely that the interviews in the film informed Townshend’s book — nor is it unlikely that writing the book spilled over into what Townshend says in the film.) Some things that are being treated as new by critics aren’t — this is hardly the first time Townshend has denigrated the song “Magic Bus,” and it’s certainly not the first time Daltrey’s youthful tendency to settle things with his fists has been addressed.
But a lot of the film is fresh, and none of it dodges the tough questions. You never get the sense of a PR mindset kicking in (contrast this with any film on the Beatles where you’re forced to read between the lines for truth). No one is made out to be better than he was — and no one is arguing the importance of what Lambert and Stamp brought to The Who, or what The Who brought to them. Similarly, there’s no attempt to gloss over where it all went wrong between the group and the managers. There are omissions. That’s inevitable. Overall, though, Lambert & Stamp is a fascinating documentary of two men, one of the great rock bands and a moment in time. Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity.