The teenage revolution was in full force on the fall 1964 night that Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp stumbled into the Railway Tavern, a London pub where a band called the High Numbers was playing and mods were gyrating. It was London's Swinging '60s, with its subculture explosion and stylish youths.
Such is the scene, glimpsed in footage shot that night, at the beginning of the riotously entertaining new documentary “Lambert & Stamp.” Lambert and Stamp were assistant film directors, frustrated by not ascending to the director's chair, but full of wild ideas. They wanted to find a band to make a film about, but their plans had wider cultural aspirations: “a mad (expletive) concoction of stuff,” says Stamp in the film.
The frenetic energy and loud rhythm and blues riffs of the High Numbers hit like a thunderclap, even if they lacked in looks. (Later, some would worry that they were too ugly to make it big.) When Lambert and Stamp became their managers, they urged them to take an earlier, abandoned name: The Who.
The infatuation was mutual. Lambert and Stamp had zero knowledge of the music business, but they were a captivating duo. Lambert, the son of a famous conductor and an Oxford grad, was posh, erudite and gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Stamp, the brother of the actor Terence Stamp, was a dashing East End Cockney, the son of a tug boat captain. Neither cared a lick for convention.
“I loved them immediately,” says Pete Townshend, the guitarist and songwriter of The Who, in the film. “They changed my life forever.”
Lambert and Stamp would mold The Who (among other things they encouraged the songwriting of Townshend) into one of the great rock 'n' roll bands. And it all started with an idea that, as Townshend says in the documentary, was intended to “blow itself up” in a year or two.
“Lambert & Stamp,” the directorial debut of James D. Cooper, a veteran cinematographer, is an intimate rock documentary that eludes most of the standard beats of the genre. By focusing on the managers — the band's so-called fifth and sixth members, “the shell of the egg” as singer Roger Daltrey says — the movie takes a wider view, capturing the composite nature of creative invention and cultural change.
It's almost all depicted in the film in black and white: gritty in period footage, classy in contemporary interviews. Stamp died in 2012, but was interviewed extensively before passing away. Lambert, though, died in 1981. His presence (the more magnetic and fascinating of the two) hovers over the film from older footage.
“Lambert & Stamp” hums frantically in the first half with the spirit of teen rebellion that propelled both The Who and its unconventional orchestrators. (Daltrey, Townshend says in a way that could only be cutting, was the only “conventional” figure of the bunch.) But the film, perhaps inevitably, subsides in the second half, as the familiar fallout of fame — drugs, death, disputes over a film of the rock opera “Tommy” — wrecks the relationships.
“Anyway, anyhow, anywhere I choose,” was the anthem The Who sang, and their managers (who signed Jimi Hendrix to a record deal before actually having a record label) were perfect representatives of the song.
Their genius was in realizing the sea change that was happening. “You don't market TO them. You market THEM,” Townshend says of the new audience relationship. Speaking to a skeptical news program, in French no less, Lambert predicts that the '60s Mod scene was no mere fad, but a youth movement that would regenerate with every generation. Indeed, the Who got older; the kids stayed the same age.
“Lambert & Stamp,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, some drug content and brief nudity.” Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.