After seeing “Lambert and Stamp,” the rather unbelievable but true story of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, whose plan to break into a career in filmmaking by making a movie about an unknown band inadvertently led to shepherding one of the 20th century’s most celebrated rock acts as the co-managers of The Who, the irony of meeting its director James D. Cooper wasn’t lost on me. Wearing a silk scarf on a warm, summerlike afternoon in Los Angeles with fashionably tousled shoulder-length hair, the filmmaker has more of the air of a rock star, right down to a comfort in his own skin that would seem more appropriate for someone who regularly takes the stage rather than stands behind a camera. Then again, if he didn’t do the latter, he might not have become friendly with Stamp years ago.
“I was just starting out in my film career and I think that that’s something that touched him,” said Cooper, who makes his directorial debut here after serving as a cinematographer on such films as Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfosky’s “Brother’s Keeper.” “[Stamp] saw his own young ambitions [in me].”
If nothing else, Cooper has allowed the titular duo, who have since passed away, the opportunity to posthumously realize their dream to some degree, incorporating much of the material they shot of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon from the days when they were the High Numbers, an unsigned band Lambert and Stamp found in the northwest London area of Wealdstone. But just as success took Lambert and Stamp in a completely different direction than they initially intended, the film about their lives feels as if it accidentally stumbled upon a hidden history of one of the world’s biggest bands at the height of their powers.
Told from a perspective rarely seen in rock docs, even the ones that focus on the machinery around an act rather than the performers themselves, “Lambert and Stamp” illuminates how the contrary partners from distinctly different backgrounds — Lambert, the son of famed composer Constant Lambert, and Stamp, whose brother Terence may have risen the fame as an actor, though the two were both from humble, working class beginnings – rethought the concert experience to empower the audience and inspired Townshend to apply classical music construction to his compositions. But appropriately enough the film feels far less like a history lesson than an engaging roundelay between longtime collaborators, enlivened both by the rare footage Cooper has of The Who and the searching nature of the interviews he does with Townshend, Paltry, Stamp and a few other acolytes of the group, all of whom share their experiences but seem to refuse to insist theirs is the definitive account, creating a conversation that belongs in real time rather than the past.
A year after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, “Lambert and Stamp” is finally making its way across the country, requiring theater managers to crank up the volume to get the full effect of seeing how “Tommy” was put together, Cooper took the time to discuss its 10-year journey to the screen, what he learned about being a filmmaker in his move from cinematographer to director and how the film may have healed old wounds between the band and their former managers.
Is it true it was a single photograph that led you down this road?
I knew Chris for many years, and I wanted to introduce my partner, Loretta Harms, to him and his wife Calixte. I knew that he had this fabulous rock and roll story, that we would occasionally talk about, but it wasn’t like some old rock guy that I hung out with and heard stories. He was always more interested in what I was doing with my film career, so it was more of a contemporary relationship. But I talked about him often and I don’t think I’d seen him for awhile, and when we saw a photograph [of Chris Stamp and Kix Lambert], [Loretta] looked at it and she’s like, “Oh, look at these two guys. This is a movie.” I said, “Well, that’s Chris and his partner.” When I introduced them, we put it to him the idea of making the film on he and Kit.
Did you actually know how much footage they shot in those early days of the Who?
As far as what Lambert and Stamp shot, their first intention was to be filmmakers. When they went out to find the subject that they were going to make this film on, they found this band and they started to shoot some film and we had access to that through Roger Daltrey. Kit had been to film school in Paris, knew a lot of filmmakers, so he had connections in TV and of course, Chris’ older brother, Terrance was becoming a film star, so in this idea of building The Who, they had the foresight to get a lot of whatever they had access to, even when they themselves stopped filming.
How did the archival footage you have dictate what you wanted to do with the film as a whole?
We shot on Super-16 because I’m a long-time cinematographer and we wanted to have a film texture. We also worked with a wonderful editor Chris Tellefsen, and we talked a lot about it not having any “tense” with the cutting style. The support material — the stock footage — wouldn’t be representational, but a living character in the film. Then there were certain things that I wanted more omniscient like, Chris Stamp, so I filmed him accordingly. It was all was very much thought out, but we were open to tonal interpretation as we were making of it.
You’ve said this has been in the works for nearly a decade and you were actually able to go back for interviews with the same people over the course of that time. Did that influence the way you wanted to tell this story in how it feels like an ongoing conversation?
Yeah, it was a 10-year process, and when we presented the idea for the film, it was about relationships. This is like a love story, but you’re telling a love story with one person living and one person no longer with us. So how do you tell a compelling relationship story with one person alive and one person not? We tried to take what would be an obstacle and tried to turn it into a creative advantage, so [we asked] what attracts you to the relationship story? One of the things is that they’re opposites. But the thing that I focused on primarily was working with Chris Stamp to make sure that I had his complete arc in place and everything was informed from that so when we would go back and film, it was usually relative to what aspect of his story was coming out at that given time.
Working over 10 years is a challenge. Really, you have to hold it together over a long time and stay consistent. We just used that to our advantage as well because things happened during that time frame that wouldn’t have happened had we knocked it out in a year. Any film is a product of the circumstances under which it’s being made, despite all the great theorizing about it. You have your intention, you have your planning, and then the film takes you on a journey. Your planning and your conceptualizing around it or your preparation only allows you to adapt as things don’t go according to plan, which of course, they never do.
There’s a great moment at the end of the film where Roger Daltrey dedicates a Who concert from the stage to Lambert and Stamp…
That’s one of the things that happened like eight years after we started filming. Good case in point.
Since as you show in the film, there was a point when Lambert and Stamp had a falling out with the band, did you actually think making this film helped facilitate a healing process or had that already happened before filming started?
Whether it was there or not, certainly for Chris Stamp, it was a process going back and living this again in a way with the perspectives that that brings. If it was in place, this certainly documents it or makes it tactile. Not that they would need me or the film to make it tactile, but certainly it puts it in a specific reality. As it mentions in the film, Roger Daltrey had called Chris Stamp before we were filming to be involved with a film on Keith Moon, so despite the complications or the ironies of their relationship, there was communication. I know that for Chris, [this film] made him look at this consciously because although he may have been doing it with himself, he now had to do it with me. He did a lot of work on the relationship with himself personally, but when you have to communicate it to somebody else, and this is probably true for Pete [Townshend] and Roger [Daltrey] also, it becomes a different animal.
This is actually your first film as a director after years of being an accomplished cinematographer. Was filmmaking a different animal from that perspective?
It challenges you on a whole other level. My cinematography career was certainly invaluable in how to approach, how to stay consistent, and how to design the production. You have to bring people around your way of thinking, but not necessarily tell them what to do. I was used to collaborating with the director and producer from the standpoint of a cinematographer, and now I’m doing that all on my own behalf. You take on other responsibilities that when you’re working in these other capacities and when I was a cinematographer, you’re being paid gobs of money to travel around and do it. Here, I had to go out and do stuff where I didn’t know whether or not we had finances, so it challenges your tenacity on another level. I had people investing in me, and I went to them with an idea and an intention and I wanted to follow through on it. While I’m happy it’s done, it’s a relief that I was able to follow through. You have to work creatively under those burdens, but [you realize] they’re not burdens, they’re just responsibilities.
“Lambert and Stamp” opens on April 3rd in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and the AMC Empire 25. A full schedule of theaters and dates can be found here.