“Let’s make like this is the real thing.”
It’s often difficult to find the line between fact and fiction in a Michael Winterbottom film. Few directors have blurred it as often or as effectively as the prolific auteur. Even fewer have done so in such adventurous fashion. For the past two decades, Winterbottom has used his immersive, hyper-realistic approach with little regard for genre.
In that time, he’s dabbled in everything from complex literary dramas (Jude, The Killer Inside Me) to stylized science fiction (Code 46). He further skewed the line between fantasy and reality in ‘based on true events’ political dramas (Welcome To Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart), screwball biopics (24 Hour Party People) and soulful slice-of-life comedies (The Trip & subsequent sequels). That line is all but non existent in Winterbottom’s pseudo-documentaries (In This World, The Road To Guatanamo). And it’s all too real in the rock & roll erotica of 9 Songs.
His latest film is called On The Road. And it’s another stylized reality bender. One that sees the director script a fictional romance into a behind the scenes tour doc about U.K. alt-rockers Wolf Alice. It’s just the sort of trick that’s worked magic in Winterbottom’s previous films. And it’s just the sort of trick that allows Winterbottom to feature two things that hold particular fascination for him – rock music and gratuitous sex. On The Road features its share of both. This go round, the effect is a little more distracting than it is immersive.
Winterbottom’s inability to balance both of the film’s narratives has a lot to do with that. As a tour doc, On The Road is bursting at the seams with rock & roll spirit. The film follows Wolf Alice on the U.K. leg of their 2016 world tour and tracks the group with propulsive energy through London, Ireland, Scotland and every town big or small in between. Viewer’s are given unfettered back stage access every step of the way. That includes setting up and breaking down gear, sound checks, post show parties and tons of back stage shenanigans. It also includes cleaning up the venues in the aftermath of a show … which is fascinating because how often do you ever really think about that?
Much of the film is spent watching the band – fronted by the waifish Ellie Roswell – suffer through interviews and sound checks and the general tedium of life on the road. In and of itself, that would make a fascinating film. The band handle every banal moment with a disaffected cool. They occasionally delve out some personal information (Roswell’s story about her mother visiting York is an absolute gem). But we never really get more than a few kernels as to who they are. Of course, Winterbottom isn’t really concerned with who Wolf Alice are as people. Only as performers. Like most performers, the band are positively electric when they take the stage.
We view both sides of the band through the eyes of a young A&R rep named Estelle (newcomer Leah Harvey). She’s 21. She’s never left London. But she takes to the spontaneity of life on the road with a wide-eyed dignity, finding the time to do her job and still have a little fun. She finds a soulful partner in crime in James McArdle’s (’71, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) roadie, Joe. The pair begin a tentative back-stage romance in between the non-stop action of the tour. Winterbottom takes his time with their story, feeding it with a tender, understated passion. The pair share glances. They share back stories. They share ice cream. Eventually, they share steamy love-making sessions in hotel rooms.
The romance never really goes too far beyond the carnal. That’s sort of the point, I suppose. How many real relationships could survive life on the road anyway. Still, one has to wonder why Winterbottom would dedicate so much of his film to this story if it wasn’t going anywhere. And why would he bother imbuing these fictional characters with such detail. A late scene between Joe and his Mother (played by the effervescent Shirley Henderson) is stunning in its simplicity and execution. But it feels like it belongs in a different movie. When On The Road switches right back to the rock show, it’s a bit of shock.
Like any rock & roll film, On The Road is most alive when the music is roaring from the screen. If you’re unfamiliar with Wolf Alice’s music, the band is sort of what Hole would’ve been like without all the heroin. If you’re too young to know who Hole is, that means crunchy guitar rock with outbursts of noise and flourishes of glam pop. The Wolf Alice sound is nothing if not infectious. It plays better on a stage than it does on their album (which left me a little bit cold). I’d highly recommend seeing this film in a theater with a killer sound system. Winterbottom captures each performance from a fan’s-eye view. Coupled with a proper sound experience, On The Road is as close to being at an actual concert as you’ll get in a theater.
That’s what makes On The Road such a confounding film. On their own, each of the film’s narratives would make for a captivating bit of cinema. But they never quite gel into a cohesive whole. Ultimately, they each feel underdeveloped. At just over two hours long, On The Road feels every bit of it. I couldn’t help but think that Winterbottom would have served his goals better if he’d just cut the romance out altogether and made On The Road a straight up tour journal. A tour journal with real drama and real relationships. ‘Cause it’s all happening right in front of him. He just doesn’t seem to see it.