On paper, Michael Winterbottom’s new film On the Road sounds promising. A director unafraid to experiment, he documents indie rock band Wolf Alice’s UK tour of their début album My Love is Cool, but places a love story at its heart. So, it’s a real shame that the film turns out to be so utterly disappointing.
Recreating the classic bands of 1980s Manchester in 24 Hour Party People (2002) and weaving nine indie rock gigs through a sexually explicit relationship in 9 Songs (2004) didn’t satisfy the British director, who was keen for years to make a ‘tour bus movie’. And just in case you were wondering the title’s allusion to Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation-defining novel isn’t accidental.
The fictional love story is embedded in this vérité footage. Recent LAMDA graduate Leah Harvey and James McArdle (known for Angels in America at the National Theatre) play Estelle and Joe. She’s with the management, he’s with the crew. They meet on the tour and sparks fly. Allegedly.
The problem is that Winterbottom never really decides what kind of film he wants to make. The relationship between Estelle and Joe features so little as to be almost negligible. They never become three-dimensional. Instead of development, we get scenes of them sneaking off to hotel rooms to have sex. A subplot involving Joe’s estranged mother (Shirley Henderson) is so brief that removing it would have virtually no impact on the film as a whole. We can’t care about any of the characters.
More interesting is when focus is on Wolf Alice – a name borrowed from magic realist author Angela Carter (Nights at the Circus). Unlike Winterbottom’s brilliant sitcom The Trip, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalised versions of themselves, the band members do not become ‘characters’. Fronted by Ellie Rowsell, their music sets the film’s melancholic tone. We see them as genuinely as they can be – backstage, giving interviews, killing time on the bus. Rather than the hedonism you might expect in a ‘rockumentary’, Winterbottom shows us a band committed to their devoted fans. The toll the relentless travelling takes on them is similar in tone to Grant Gee’s Meeting People is Easy (1998), a documentary about Radiohead’s OK Computer world tour.
Winterbottom rarely allows his shots – and sometimes his scenes – to last longer than a few seconds, never giving the audience time to settle into the film’s slow-burn rhythm. But he is effective at capturing the loneliness and fatigue of the tour. He takes a step back from the gigs themselves, allowing us to see for ourselves how Ellie Rowsell transforms from quiet introvert to a charismatic performer who owns every stage on which she sets foot.
Fans of Wolf Alice will enjoy the familiar songs – including Silk, The Wonderwhy and Your Loves Whore – but otherwise be frustrated by a love story that never engages and a style that frequently annoys. The result, at two hours, is overlong and occasionally boring. Filming mundanity without being mundane has challenged filmmakers for years. Winterbottom hasn’t quite managed it.
Words by Logan Jones