Wednesday, 12 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: ON THE ROAD - Dir. Michael Winterbottom

This late addition to the BFI London Film Festival line-up captures life on tour with London band Wolf Alice. Amongst the regular crew, Michael Winterbottom places a handful of actors to guide the audience along on the journey. The innovative approach breathes some fresh life into the rock tour doc but it ultimately paralyses the film from ever truly fulfilling its early promise.

There’s a good reason that the film is called On The Road and not Wolf Alice or the name of one of their songs; Winterbottom’s aim here is to capture the life of a touring crew, charging up and down the motorways from one venue to the next. In that regard, this film is a success. Having worked (for a time) a somewhat similar life in television production, the convergence of work life and personal life was immediately recognisable.

The need to fill long gaps between intense periods of actual work, working and then staying in hotels or on a tour bus with the same people, and the friendly banter between senior and junior colleagues; this is the day to day life of these people and the film captures this perfectly.

The two main fictional characters of the crew are management assistant Estelle (Leah Harvey) and drum technician Joe (James McArdle); their presence is appropriately unobtrusive and their own relationship and personal concerns are appropriately low key. These two almost unknown actors help to maintain the illusion of reality that Winterbottom has created but the brief appearance of Shirley Henderson unnecessarily threatens to fracture it. Harvey and McArdle are great both on their own and together, and the conclusion to their story is the right one but it isn’t enough to sustain an entire film.

Many may go to the film looking for an insight into Wolf Alice and their music but this is sorely lacking too. Band members Ellie, Joff, Theo and Joel are likeable on screen presences and there’s some enjoyment in their conversations with each other and supporting bands Swim Deep and Bloody Knees. Unfortunately by not wanting to intrude on normal conversations, moments of insight into the band can only be captured as and when they organically occur, at acoustic radio sessions or in brief interactions with fans for example. Unsurprisingly, the band don’t talk about themselves whilst slumped on the coach travelling up the M1.

There’s plenty of great concert footage and Winterbottom forgoes the modern temptation to attach Go-Pros all over the venues and edit together an over produced headache. Cameras in the crowds capture the band bathed in light on stage with shadowy, bobbing heads in the foreground; cameras backstage capture the otherwise unseen interactions and facial expressions of adoring fans.

It’s tricky to portray the repetitiveness of touring (and the pressure to be at the top of your game every night) without the portrayal itself becoming repetitive and at almost two hours in length, On The Road falls just the wrong side of this line. As ever with these experiences, it’s difficult to fully convey the joy and pleasure of actually being there to someone who wasn’t.

On The Road played at the 60th BFI London Film Festival.

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