To fledgling filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, it seemed like a great idea: Find a rock group to manage and then make an artsy documentary about the process. Colleagues at England's Shepperton Studios in the early 1960's, Lambert and Stamp were unlikely friends; the former enjoyed a posh but closeted upbringing as the son of a renowned classical composer, while the latter came up in the working-class East End, the son of a tugboat captain (and little brother to the supremely cool Terence Stamp). But the duo had bonded over their love of Jean Luc-Godard and La Nouvelle Vague, and it wasn't long before Lambert and Stamp stumbled upon an exciting quartet called The High Numbers, whom they soon renamed. But as we learn in the fond, insightful "Lambert & Stamp" -- um, spoiler alert? -- they never did get to make their hoped-for movie. They merely helped craft The Who.
"There were probably not two guys on the planet that knew less about rock than these two," a comrade says of Lambert and Stamp. The two nonetheless recognized, according to Chris Stamp, that the audience's mesmerized reaction to the unpolished High Numbers was the key. ("We wouldn't have been particularly impressive," guitarist Pete Townshend remembers.) But the raw materials were famously there, and through reminiscences, as well as a trove of velvety black-and-white footage, it becomes pretty clear that The Who probably wouldn't have happened without Stamp's bold hucksterism and Lambert's musical mentorship. Lambert, for instance, helped Townshend figure out how to cobble together an opera (you know it as "Tommy"), while Stamp suggested the stutter in "My Generation." And all agreed that scrappy front man Roger Daltrey needed to use his words rather than his fists -- but if there was gonna be a brawl, on stage would be the best place for it.
Like any proper rock trajectory, however, there's a downfall, as the infighting and alliances that inevitably result from financial success drove a wedge between The Who and its managers. What's especially lovely about "Lambert & Stamp" is that the primary interviewees, Stamp and Townshend, are as keen to take blame for the breakdown in communication as they are to assign it, and their latter-day interactions carry an affectionately bittersweet weight. The early deaths of Lambert and drummer Keith Moon get more acknowledgement than the 2002 passing of bassist John Entwhistle, and for some reason director James D. Cooper never mentions Stamp's 2012 death, making Townshend and Daltrey the last men standing among the six architects of a watershed event in rock 'n' roll history. And even though the film could use a little streamlining, "Lambert & Stamp" will likely stand as that moment's definitive chronicle.