Michael Winterbottom’s On the Road is his best film in years: romantic, erotic and musically euphoric. This is a sensuously laidback docu-social-realist gem which takes something very difficult and makes it look easy. Winterbottom and his camera crew went out on the road last year with the indie rock band Wolf Alice as they toured the UK and Ireland: a group whose name is taken from an Angela Carter short story. They are Ellie Rowsell (guitar, vocals), Joff Oddie (guitar), Joel Amey (drums) and Theo Ellis (bass). The various tour dates provide a convenient chapter-break structure, and are announced in block capitals on screen: Glasgow, Liverpool, etc.
About 80% of his film is a straightforward – and very good – documentary about the tour, recording the live shows, the backstage lives and the band’s weary but patient grappling with press obligations, including going into local radio stations and sportingly playing “live acoustic” versions of their songs around the interview table. But Winterbottom has also inveigled ride-along actors on the tour bus, embedded fictional characters whose backstage lives are intermeshed with the real world captured on film. Their emotions appear to be projected outwards into the heaving mass of real-world fans singing passionately along to the songs of Wolf Alice.
They are Joe (James McArdle), a grizzled twentysomething Glasgow roadie and Estelle (Leah Harvey), taking photos for the management website and shepherding the band for media appearances and interviews. Joe and Estelle start talking … and there’s a spark of attraction between them. In Winterbottom’s more explicit movie 9 Songs, the music became a soundtrack to the relationship. Here, the proportion and emphasis are differently weighed and it’s more that the relationship is a soundtrack to the music, or that they work as some sort of counterpoint.
This could easily have been a rather fey and arch idea, and at first the obviously fictional feel of Estelle’s dialogue and line-readings, and the shots of her smiling and nodding along to the band’s music seem an uncomfortable fit. But the invented life beds in, and provides an emotional and dramatic perspective on the life of the music; it gives us a way into it.
In the best way, Winterbottom lets the music do the work. The songs are the meat of the film and are given space to breathe. But they are never made to bear dramatic significance – tby overtly commenting on the fictional action, or being ironically at variance with it. The film is unselfconscious and uncoercive in its attitude to Wolf Alice.
This is not to say that specific dramatic things do not happen. Joe meets up with his brother, who persuades him to pay a visit to his mum, who is not doing well: this is a cameo from Shirley Henderson, who appears drunk and unhappy in a pub. But the scene does not develop into a hammy confrontation-catharsis. It is undramatic and inconclusive – as real life tends to be.
There’s another subtle detail, which Winterbottom presents with a masterly lack of emphasis. Estelle (and indeed Leah Harvey) is musically very talented. On a couple of occasions, she gets her guitar out on the tour bus while the other roadies and staff are reading or snoozing, and sings some great songs, evidently of her own composition. And her fellow road crew, particularly the guys, are not especially pleased with her presumption: there are looks that are blank, or disapproving. A taboo of some sort has been broken, and the glances appear to say: the band is the talent, to which we are subservient, and we don’t particularly want to extend that subservience to you.
On the Road (the original title was Love Song) does not have any obvious narrative arc: there is anticlimax when the bassist injures his elbow and can’t play in the final gig at the Forum in north London. There isn’t any obvious resolution or development in Joe and Estelle’s relationship, either – but a kind of piquancy and eroticism in its unfinished, lingering quality. This made me a fan of Wolf Alice, and reawakened my Winterbottom fanhood.