Wednesday, 14 December 2016

REVIEW REVISITED: Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who (2007)

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This is a reprint of my review first published on Three Men on a Blog in 2011, with a number of significant revisions. You can read my original review here.

Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who
Directed by Murray Learner & Paul Crowder
Starring Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Keith Moon

Like any kind of biographical project, rock documentaries have the potential to be nothing more than exercises in ego inflation. When The Who's first film The Kids Are Alright was released in 1979, singer Roger Daltrey sold it on the basis that it made the band look like "complete idiots". He quipped that The Song Remains The Same – Led Zeppelin’s bloated vanity project from three years earlier - was made "for the sole purpose of making Robert Plant's dick look big."

Amazing Journey is a natural companion to The Kids Are Alright, covering much of the same ground in a more detailed and serene manner, as well as providing some (but not enough) much-needed coverage of the band's activity after the death of Keith Moon. It is the weaker and less engaging of the two films, but newcomers to the band will find much that is engrossing or entertaining, while existing fans can revel in all the new footage which is on offer.
When making a documentary about a famous band, it would be very easy to just regurgitate all the most famous anecdotes, inter-cut with their greatest hits. Considering all the things Moon is alleged to have done in his short but eventful life, you could have filled up the two hours with an exhaustive list of every last prank. Such an approach would be detailed but also tiresomely inaccessible; no-one wants to watch ageing rockers and roadies arguing over whether it was a Rolls Royce or a Lincoln Continental which Moon drove into a swimming pool.
Fortunately, for fans and newcomers alike, Amazing Journey rarely falls into this trap, and when it does approach stories of drum kits being blown up or televisions being flung out of hotel windows, it makes some effort to clarify the facts rather than just revelling in the mythos that Moon and the band cultivated. The film is very well-researched, drawing on a variety of sources to tell the story of The Who. Alongside a series of interviews with Daltrey and Pete Townshend, there is footage of the band's TV appearances, live performances at Charlton and Kilburn (which featured in The Kids Are Alright), and various clips from their promotional videos and forays into filmmaking. In certain sections animation is employed - for instance, the cover art of A Quick One is animated while Townshend's mini-opera is discussed.
The most interesting section of the film, for both fans and newcomers, is the opening section up until the arrival of Moon in early-1964. This section explores the genesis of The Who's unique sound, describing the musical landscape of 1950s Britain and the young musicians' relationship with London skiffle and American blues. It may be a cliché to describe life in 1950s Britain as being in black-and-white – words used by Daltrey early on - and to set the scene by showing footage of bombed buildings. But through this section you come to understand the band's initial fire and fury, and how much of their music was a reaction against 1950s culture, both musically and socially.
One of the coups of the film is the eight minutes of footage of the band, then called The High Numbers, performing at the Railway Hotel in London in 1964. This footage is interesting both for its rarity and for capturing the band on the brink of finding their own sound and thereafter success. Daltrey is still singing blues covers in a style somewhere between Lonnie Donnegan and John Lee Hooker, but all the other ingredients are beginning to come through: Moon's exuberant drumming, Townshend's jagged power chords and John Entwistle's complex, jazzy bass lines.
Amazing Journey is far from a po-faced affair, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to keep us entertained. It's hard not to chuckle when Entwistle rips on their label-mate Jimmy Hendrix, or Townshend impersonates the Beach Boys with equal amounts of playfulness and vitriol. And then there is the montage of Moon's various incarnations, ranging from a pirate to an SS officer and a Dickensian bookkeeper.
There is also a lot of self-deprecation on the part of Townshend and Daltrey. While the former occasionally covers himself in glory, describing himself as "on the edge of things" and calling Quadrophenia "magnificent" (which it is), Daltrey is much more understated and welcoming. His posture throughout interviews is downbeat, frequently holding his hands near his face and at points being close to tears. He's not asking for sympathy, but nor is he reigning himself in to play to his stereotype of being the band's hard man.
This sense of self-deprecation helps to partially mitigate one of the problems of Amazing Journey, namely the chumminess of its outside contributors. The film features contributions from The Edge, Noel Gallagher, Eddie Vedder and Sting, all of whom makes no bones about their adulation of the band and its influence on their own music. Some of them have direct connections with the band - Sting played the Ace Face in Quadrophenia and Gallagher performed with them in 2000. But for all The Edge's knowledge of 1960s music, he doesn't have a lot to contribute, and Vedder frequently resorts to platitude to praise his heroes.
There are other problems too. Firstly, there is the question of whether or not it is cinematic; the film had a very short theatrical release before being released as a 2-disc DVD set. It may be a consequence of seeing the same clips being endlessly repeated in TV documentaries, but portions of Amazing Journey do feel like they are more at home on the small screen. The directors use an interesting device to get around this, namely structuring the film like a double album; the film stops to turn the record over, and the footage occasionally skips and distorts like sound on a scratched LP. But about halfway through this device is phased out and the niggling feeling remains in your mind.
From a fan's point of view, the film does begin to canter through the history after 1975. It treats the later works and the gaps between reunions rather more brusquely, when in fact there is some interest in exploring the various behaviours of the band outside The Who. We get a mention of Moon's drunken exploits in 1974, but the film versions of Tommy and Quadrophenia barely get a look-in, and neither do the band's various solo efforts. You can understand the filmmakers wanting to keep the running time down, and the need for the film to play to a mainstream audience, but long-time fans of the band will still feel like this was a missed opportunity.
The overarching problem with Amazing Journey, however, is that it is a little too civilised for its own good. It doesn't have the raw, shambolic energy of The Kids Are Alright, so that even in the bits which are laugh-out-loud funny, or which feature Townshend being outrageous, it feels a little too carefully controlled to properly capture the atmosphere of the band. There is an argument for shooting in a more serene style, since some of the band's energy has waned and both surviving members are a lot older and wiser. But the recent footage of the band touring Endless Wire throws the former claim somewhat into question, so that while the film is engrossing it is also frustrating.
Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who is a well-made and informative attempt to catalogue the highs and lows of one of the world's greatest rock bands. The sheer amount of archive material gives it a comprehensive feel, and as an introduction to the band it is very accessible and entertaining. But long-time fans of the band may be disappointed in places, both in the lack of coverage post-1982 and in the calmer style of presentation. It's good but not great, and definitely not The Kids Are Alright.

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You can check out my thoughts on Quadrophenia by checking out The Movie Hour podcast here. If you want more on Tommy, check out this article on the album's 40th anniversary, which I wrote for The Warwick Boar back in 2009.

For my thoughts on the other film called The Kids Are Alright, click here.

NEXT REVIEW: Austenland (2013)

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