Michael Winterbottom Follows Indie Band Wolf Alice 'On The Road' In New Docudrama [BFI London Film Fest Review]

The rock documentary/concert movie is almost as old as rock and roll itself, thanks to shining early examples of the genre like “The Last Waltz,” “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Woodstock.” But it’s a form that got old quite fast, and while you occasionally see a great one, a picture that twists the form on its head or shoots in an inventive new way (Andrew Dominik’s “One More Time With Feeling,” which Jess loved at Venice, for instance), there’s a certain formula that these things fall into, and they tend to only be for hardcore fans of the band.

However, one of the filmmakers we’d theoretically be interested in tackling a music documentary is Michael Winterbottom. The prolific and chameleonic British filmmaker has often put music at the center of his work, most notably with “24 Hour Party People,” one of the best films ever made about bands and music, and seems like he could bring something unique to the music documentary table. So, while he’s been on patchy form of late, it was with a little optimism that we approached “On The Road,” which premiered over the weekend at the BFI London Film Festival.

The film sees Winterbottom teaming up with Wolf Alice, a young London band who’ve been one of the faster-rising UK indie acts of recent years. Made up of vocalist Ellie Rowsell, guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey, they pull off a mix of eerie folk and grunge, which sounds like it shouldn’t work but totally does, and they’ve picked up a Grammy nod, a Mercury Music Prize nomination and a hit on the U.S. Alternative charts this year with “Moaning Lisa Smile.”

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Good band? Check. Good director? Check. And yet “On The Road” (a title that sets up some Kerouc-ian expectations that the film resolutely fails to fulfill) is an absolute bore, a film that might not be the worst and most pointless movie of the director’s filmography (yes, even beyond the dreadful “The Face Of An Angel”).

The first problem is that while Wolf Alice make good music, and seem like very nice people, they’re not, on the evidence we see here, particularly interesting. There’s not much debauchery or investigation into the music itself, and while we see their touring partners Swim Deep and The Bloody Knees a little too, they don’t get much time in the spotlight.

These sorts of films work best when there’s an iconic band or artist involved, but we live in an age with fewer and fewer acts that reach those heights. Which isn’t to say that you can’t make a good film about a band now, you just need the right angle. “Shut Up And Play The Hits” stood out by examining James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem at a time when they were retiring at the peak of their fame (temporarily, it turned out), while “Mistaken For Strangers” looked at The National through the eyes of the layabout brother of their lead singer, and both are among the best recent music movies.

Winterbottom, ever the experimenter, takes the approach of introducing a fictional narrative, inserting rising British actors Leah Harvey and James McArdle into the band’s crew as a management rep and a roadie respectively, and showing a burgeoning romance between their characters in the background. It’s an interesting idea — a little reminiscent of “Hell Or High Water” director David Mackenzie’s little-seen “Tonight I’m Yours” — but one that completely fails in execution.

Harvey and McArdle are winnning presences, particularly the former, who has a natural charisma remiscent of Naomie Harris’s early turns. But they really exist on the margins of the film rather than at its heart, their romance given no meat beyond that they flirt, they fuck, and they then say goodbye. Shirley Henderson pops up for a single scene as McArdle’s alcoholic Glaswegian mum, but it serves no purpose beyond to remind you that you’re watching a Michael Winterbottom film.

It’s neither one thing nor the other, and at an unforgivably indulgent two hours, it becomes a real slog to sit through, made up mostly of endless shots of equipment being loaded in and out of venues or cliched time-lapse images of motorways. Wolf Alice fans will be delighted to know that there’s plenty of concert footage, and it’s well shot, but even they would probably concede that they’re rather have had a shorter film, rather than one literally twice the length of their headline sets.

There could have been something interesting here, a music doc tackling a similar arc to “Almost Famous,” watching a band dealing with increasing fame as they tour mid-level venues, with a well-drawn dramatic story ticking along in the background. Instead we get “9 Songs” but without the explicit sex, and something that feels tossed-off and half-thought-out. We love Winterbottom, and we’d love for him to deliver something great without the word ‘Trip’ in the title again. But “On The Road” isn’t that film. [D-]

Click here for our complete coverage of the 2016 BFI London Film Festival