Friday 6 October 2017

They drive by night: "On the Road"

Given that he was previously responsible for one of the best scored films in recent memory (1999's Wonderland) and an especially vivid snapshot of the Manchester scene (2002's 24 Hour Party People), any Michael Winterbottom film on the subject of music merits our attention; the only fear is that he might, at any point, retreat once again into the vogueish arsehole-and-navel-gazing of 2004's 9 Songs. Shot in the course of the band Wolf Alice's breakthrough UK tour of 2016, On the Road presents as one of Winterbottom's hybrid works. Some substantial part of it intends to be a document of life on the road, complete with all the rehearsal and gig footage the band's fans might want, but Winterbottom also introduces a note or two of fiction in establishing a tentative relationship between a representative of the band's management (Leah Harvey) and a member of the technical crew (James McArdle). The experiment that results, though it has its moments, is only halfway successful.

Several series of TV's The Trip - by some distance Winterbottom's most committed project - have brought this gadfly director's primary theme into sharper focus: the artist as romantic (even Romantic) figure, wandering this Earth, either unable or unwilling to put down anything in the way of roots, becoming increasingly aware of their own mortality. Unlike a lot of NME-endorsed chancers over the years, Wolf Alice bound onto this stage as a supremely photogenic proposition. Naturally, Winterbottom's camera becomes transfixed before lead singer Ellie Rowsell, with her capacity to appear elfin in repose while generating thunderous noise come showtime, yet drummer Joel Amey, too, sports lustrously Byronic locks, and even bassist Theo Ellis, who looks as bassists are wont to look, makes the effort of applying a glittery eye shadow before communing with his public. (It's the old Dave Hill tactic.)

Winterbottom is largely successful in his attempts to evoke the modest milieux that an emergent indie-rock band with some industry clout behind them might pass through: the curious intimacy of the tourbus by day and after dark, the varyingly self-conscious interviews given by bands just stepping into the limelight, the sight of student union bars after a gig, their now-empty dancefloors scattered with standard-issue plastic cups, the cumulative feeling we get of twentysomething travellers slowly running out of clean socks. (One nice, resonant ad hoc line, picked up in passing backstage: "Are you going for a curry after this?") Winterbottom is still to some degree the same realist who knocked out Butterfly Kiss, Welcome to Sarajevo and In This World in the first flush of his career, and it's a tribute to his embedded performers that the unbriefed viewer might well mistake them for real-life hangers-on.

The dramatic strand - which takes in our boy's fraught relationship with his alcoholic mother (Shirley Henderson, typically striking in the minute or so she appears on screen) - suffers from being underdeveloped and imprecisely miked: these snatches of conversation, overheard from afar, reflect only how Winterbottom and crew were evidently at the mercy of somebody else's schedule, obliged to capture what they could when they could. The straightahead emotion of the gigs - the band striking up a tune, the young crowd singing it back to them, or otherwise going wild - registers rather stronger. More exasperatingly, given the overextended two-hour duration, is the sheer amount of downtime On the Road obliges us to navigate: we're left in very little doubt that each day on tour may generate ninety minutes of stonking rock 'n' roll, but it also involves ten to fifteen hours of travelling, unpacking, setting up, and then moving on from one place to the next, as Winterbottom himself has from project to project.

For a while, the director finds ways to keep boredom at arm's length - Harvey's way with a song and a smile should be enough to secure her own future within the entertainment industry - but increasingly all the repetition of touring does is generate the same kinds of scenes, familiar editing strategies (as in 9 Songs, love scenes and live scenes go intertwined) and an overall diffuseness of effect. The idea - to debunk all those hoary Cocksucker Blues-era myths of life on the road - isn't an unworthy one: like many other college-educated, career-conscious mainstays of the 6Music playlist, ver Alice shy away from sex and drugs on camera, and can instead be observed discussing Harry Potter and cleaning their teeth (even, for the love of Lemmy, moisturising) before turning in for the night. Yet this isn't really the basis of compelling cinema, and there's only so many minutes of roadies wheeling equipment around you can watch before the eyes cloud over, the heart sinks, and you find yourself pestering the coach driver to drop you off at the nearest service station.

On the Road opens in selected cinemas from today.

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