I’ve been a fan of the British rock group The Who since my early teens, but I never knew much about their story. A fascinating new film reveals aspects of their story that are more unusual than I could have imagined. Made by first-time director James D. Cooper, it’s called Lambert & Stamp, and right off the bat the most remarkable thing about it is that it’s not really about The Who, or at least not centered on the group the way most rock band documentaries tend to be. It’s about the two guys who discovered, promoted, and managed them—Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.
They were polar opposites who became lifelong friends. Lambert was from the English upper class, Oxford educated, the son of an eminent composer and conductor, Constant Lambert. He was interested in filmmaking, and had already shown an adventurous side by shooting footage of an expedition to a remote part of the Amazon in Brazil. He was 27 when he met the 19-year-old Chris Stamp at Shepperton Studios. Stamp was working class—his older brother Terence, who is interviewed in the film, had already had some success as an actor. Kit & Chris discovered that their interests were remarkably similar—they were both passionate about the New Wave in French cinema and wanted to break boundaries and challenge convention in English film. Lambert was also interested in music—the Beatles had just emerged—and he had the idea of finding a new rock n’ roll group and making a film about them. After months of searching, they stumbled, in 1964, upon a band called The High Numbers, playing in small London clubs to audiences from the so-called “Mod” cultural movement at the time. They were of course Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon, soon to be renamed The Who.
Told from the unique point of view of these two young rebel visionaries, who were really making it all up as they went along, the film has an amazing depth and maturity which is unlike the vast majority of rock n’ roll movies. With their great charm and energy, they completely won over the four young men in the group and were soon managing them. Not being professionals, they brought a completely different approach than what you’d expect. They were clear up front about this being a temporary project with the end result being a movie. That didn’t quite work out the way they expected.
The film’s numerous interviews are really fun and illuminating, and in the center, of course, we have the two surviving members of The Who, Townshend and Daltry—and Chris Stamp himself. Being filmmakers, Stamp and Lambert shot a lot of interesting footage of those times. The one missing voice is that of Kit Lambert, who died in 1981 after a long tragic slide into addiction. In a way the film is an elegy for Lambert, who we discover had an immensely creative influence on The Who, particularly nurturing the songwriting skills of Pete Townshend. With his diminutive stature, distinctive pug-nosed face, the chain-smoking, sophisticated Lambert was gay when it was illegal to be gay in England, and was some kind of a genius, producing quite a few number one records by other artists besides The Who, and helping Townshend organize his classic rock opera Tommy into an almost coherent narrative.
The film captures the love, blissfulness and exhilaration of that time in the 60s and early 70s, and the conflict and depression and eventual failures as well. Most of all it achieves an intimacy with its subjects, a real feeling of affection for these amazing people. Lambert & Stamp was such an unexpected delight, coming out of nowhere and just knocking my socks off, one of the best rock documentaries ever.