ON THE ROAD
Director Michael Winterbottom cast Leah Harvey, James Mcardle, Paul Popplewell, Shirley Henderson, Wolf Alice
plot As indie rock band Wolf Alice tour the UK over the course of a year, they’re joined by a young woman (Harvey) who works for their management. Becoming part of their daily life, she makes a big impact on one of the crew (Mcardle).
THERE IS A great line from Charlie Watts — always the most quotable member of The Rolling Stones — in which he accurately sums up the reality of a quarter of a century’s worth of life in a touring rock band. “Five years working,” he sniffs, “and 20 years hanging around.” Understandably, most on-tour-with films tend to focus more on the former half of this quip (plus, of course, the after-parties), with the long, arduous tour-bus drives up and down the M1 and the restless naps grabbed in airport departure lounges only represented in montages.
For his film about rising London indie rockers Wolf Alice, Michael Winterbottom has chosen to more accurately reflect the excitement/mundanity balance of a year on the road. So while we get plenty of live performance clips in not-so-glamourous locations — “Hello, Folkestone!” — the focus here is on sitting around at soundchecks and dressing rooms, banal tour-bus chatter, and even-more-banal regional radio interviews (entertainingly, and probably knowingly, one of these is at Radio Norfolk). Using this as a backdrop, real actors are deftly, subtly woven into proceedings, and we start to see a relationship blossom between a charming-but-dim Glaswegian roadie named Joe (Mcardle) and Estelle (Harvey): a member of the band’s management team who has joined the tour to take live photos for their website.
Wolf Alice, you suspect, have been chosen for this film precisely because, in terms of touring antics, they are unremarkable. Their songs are decent and singer/guitarist Ellie Roswell is genuinely charismatic, but in terms of bad behaviour, Mötley Crüe they are not. Cocaine and groupies are nowhere to be seen, while the wildest they get is jumping around a bit at a club they have been booked to DJ at after one of the shows. Even when their bassist injures his elbow right before a London show, they are seen simply, calmly running a stand-in through his parts in the few hours before stage time. There are zero inter-band arguments, and none of them say anything particularly noteworthy, nor even moan much about being exhausted.
Few teenage tearaways will come away from this film with the resolve to pick up a guitar and carve out a life like this for themselves. But that’s far from the point. The action here (or rather lack of it) concocts the perfect, dream-like atmosphere in which Winterbottom can tell a story of two people falling in love (his original title was ‘Love Song’). The way that Joe and Estelle’s conversations begin awkwardly but then evolve into a genuine, touching rapport feels authentic, while the key scenes are actually the ones in which they manage to grab a few moments alone backstage or in the less-thansalubrious surroundings of a mid-price hotel room. Halfway through, the camera lingers long on Estelle’s motionless face in the crowd as the band blast through their songs, her thoughts taking centre stage. By the end, you feel incredibly invested in her relationship and anxious to know how it will pan out. The quiet, low-key closing scenes that follow may be far from how you’d expect an on-tour rock documentary to climax. But in their own unique way, they pack as emotional a punch as any great curtain-call ballad would. Verdict A highly original mood piece, Michael Winterbottom’s latest might deglamorise the fantasy of going out on the road with a rock ’n’ roll band, but while doing so it also provides one of the year’s most touching romances.