Michael Winterbottom’s new film follows the UK tour of the enormously popular indie rock band, Wolf Alice, to promote their debut album: My Love is Cool. Winterbottom is the notoriously radical director of the wildly popular 24 Hour Party People, a wild experiment with the genre that paid off in heaps. At the heart of his new film, On the Road, is a documentary about a young, up-and-coming band and the backbone which is their crew.
We follow the story from Dublin to Belfast, up through the north of England to Glasgow and then back down to the south to finish in London. We are allowed into the cramped, endless hours and nights on the road; the continuous unloading and loading of kit; the constant press and radio interviews; the repetitive sound checks; and finally the concerts – and then it’s all packed away to start over again. The film is a brutally honest account of the unglamorous realities of life on the road. There are none of the massive dazzling rock star luxurious elements that are instinctively connected to the idea of band/touring life. Rather, we are given only the gruelling and relentlessness of the tour.
It is a testament to Winterbottom that the repetitiveness and mundaneness of the greenrooms are never for a second boring. Instead each moment on the bus or in the very ordinary backstage is a further glimpse into the little private snapshots of the band. This fly on the wall view captures the most raw and honest moments between the band members and their support acts. We sneak glimpses at the humour, charisma and passion of the band to maintain their standards and to create the best music possible. To separate these mundane moments, there are glimpses of the concert shows, the lyrics acting more like poetry echoing into the next scene. For instance, the telling of why the band is called Wolf Alice is a quiet moment with lead singer Ellie Rowsell talking about Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the inspirational themes and writing she found within it.
Woven into the documentary there is a fictional element of two characters who play out their own love story. Estelle (Leah Harvey) is our ultimate protagonist as the film begins with her arrival and the audience is as new and curious as her. She is from the record company, is there to help out with the promotion, and will likely fall for Joe (James McArdle) one of the roadies. They are opposites, but naturally and sweetly begin to get to know each other; this is intensified by the forced intimacy of the tour bus where they literally sleep metres apart.
There is an obvious risk with introducing a false element to a documentary with a true subject, however this cunning plan of fusing genres acts in the favour of the story. As through these fictional characters woven into the story, the audience is able to really experience the life behind the scenes through the approachable ordinary people. Their presence helps to ground the film and connect the audience to a common empathy. For the sake of not breaking the trust and illusion of the roles, both actors were put to real work on the tour to make their characters fit naturally within the dynamics of the tour. However, it is down to Winterbottom’s ability to create characters and situations where upon the people could bring out themselves naturally rather than in a blatant garish manner. Instead of making two separate documentaries about two experiences the film makes one, that creates an honest and raw image of the life of a band and all those behind the scenes that allow them on stage each night. It is a very complex and vital ecosystem, to which Winterbottom gives just attention to.
One of the best elements of the film is the presentation of the band: singer Ellie Rowsell, the bassist Theo Ellis, the guitarist Joff Oddie, and drummer Joel Amey. Not only is there natural charisma and raw talent shown, but also the mundane, funny and human aspects are shown. Their titles as a famous band are removed and we are left with four young artists exhausted and working hard for the sake of their craft. By the end of the tour they are physically wounded trying to maintain their high standards; this dedication speaks highly of their devotion to their art. Ultimately, you fall in love with them, you hurt when they do, you root for them throughout the film. Even until the credits with images of their US tour, the audience is invested in their journey.
The thing that hits you about On The Road is how real and human it makes each of its subjects. People that live on stage far away, are shown joking around with cheap beer and a guitar in a grubby ugly room. The documentary ultimately makes you want to be part of your own Indie band if only to play bad footie on a rocky beach. The intimacy and mundane nature of the film makes you feel like a friend or a confidant, soon enough you want to watch more – be let through more backstage doors. Almost like you were invited to go and sit with the popular kids at school for an afternoon. As soon as it is over you want more. It is a cocoon of a film, wrapped up in layers of emotions, themes and subjects – the film challenges you to care about those glittering figures on stages that are actually ordinary people.
Image: Paul Hudson