Opening Friday

A case can be made that, of the three big British Invasion bands, The Who were the most interesting because they were the most fucked up. The Beatles were cute and the Stones were sexy, but The Who were a gang of working-class street kids from England’s violent Mod scene. They were dangerous.

The rollicking documentary LAMBERT & STAMP explores the early history of the band through the story of the two men considered its unofficial fifth and sixth members. London scenesters Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp didn’t just discover and manage the group, they arguably created The Who as we know it today.

Director James D. Cooper provides intriguing portraits of both men. Lambert, who passed away in 1981, was an unlikely hipster. An Oxford grad, his father was a classical composer. Stamp, on the other hand, was a street kid all the way. His dad piloted a tugboat on the Thames. (Brother Terence Stamp, also onscreen here, went on to some success as well.)

The film focuses mostly on interviews with Stamp, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Archival footage is stitched throughout, keyed to musical blasts from the band’s early catalog. The doc boasts an agreeably loose style. The standard-issue talking-head interviews regularly go off the rails, with crew members laughing and objects swinging into the frame.

Interesting revelations abound. Among the rejected names for the band: The Hair, British European Airlines and Nothing. Later, it’s revealed that Keith Moon and John Entwistle nearly quit to join Led Zeppelin. One compelling passage toward the end just follows a conversation between Townshend and Daltrey as they air out old resentments.

But the really fascinating stuff focuses on the two title characters. Back in the day, Lambert and Stamp were new-school showbiz hucksters. They once offered Jimi Hendrix a record deal, even though they didn’t have a record company. (“We intended to get one,” Stamp remembers.) But they were also innovators, developing new recording methods and stage techniques, and getting the rock opera Tommy into the Met in 1969.

The duo’s genius, the film argues, wasn’t that they recognized the authentic greatness of The Who. It was that they cultivated and amplified that greatness. The band was the real deal, all right. But one wonders if their world-beating success story would be the same without the gonzo rock promotion strategies of Lambert and Stamp.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Intelligent designs”