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film review

In the early 1960s of British rock, Kit Lambert, left, and Chris Stamp were the new bosses. And they were nothing like the old bosses. The poignant documentary explores the relationship between the novice managers.Chris Morphet

Brian Epstein, with the Beatles.

Andrew Loog Oldham, and the Rolling Stones.

And Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, when it came to shaping the Who.

In the early 1960s of British rock, those guys were the new bosses. And they were nothing like the old bosses.

In James D. Cooper's energetic and ultimately poignant documentary on the early days of the Who, the relationship of novice managers Lambert and Stamp with the awkwardly promising quartet they took on is intimately explored through interviews and old footage. The recollections ring honestly; the differing shades of truth seem organic, not self-serving.

The Who's rapport with their career guides was much the same as the bond experienced by the other key British invaders and their young, concept-happy handlers. The upstart Epsteins, Stamps, Lamberts and Loog Oldhams fashioned the images and lit the fuses – gurus making it up as they went along. And then, later, when things took off, they were outgrown, betrayed and left behind like last week's Melody Maker.

You might call this a business story. But I call it a love story, and I think director Cooper might, too.

"I fell in love literally with both of them immediately," Pete Townshend, the Who's guitarist and conceptualist, says of Lambert and Stamp. "They completely and utterly and totally changed my life."

The dapper Christopher (Kit) Lambert was an Oxford-educated chappie who lived off nervous energy and the sound of his own voice. (He was fluent in English, German and French, we find out from archival film clips.) He was also gay: Townshend admits to having been miffed when Lambert didn't make a play for him, not that the guitarist would have reciprocated.

On the other hand, Chris Stamp, a cool, hard and handsome son of a tugboat captain, was "interested in girls," according to his brother, the actor Terence Stamp. Together, they made a chalk-and-cheese pairing, although they shared a passion for hustling, high living and the cinema. They came together on an unorthodox plan to find a band and manage its ascent, all the while filming the process.

So, the Who – or the High Numbers as they were then called – were to be something of a reality-show rock 'n' roll band.

And yes, there was drama. Lambert and Stamp, right away recognizing the special musical gifts of Townshend, set him up in a posh apartment, away from the art-school world of dope, squalor and blues music. They were smitten with Townshend, and the other three Who members resented the special treatment.

If the four band mates were actors in Lambert and Stamp's play, singer Roger Daltrey didn't really have a role. Where Townshend, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle were eccentric when it came to playing their instruments, Daltrey was "conventional." (He was also a sheet-metal worker who settled disputes with his fists. The Who's new managers quickly forbade him from punching people.)

It wasn't until the 1969 rock-opera album Tommy that Daltrey found his true role, as the rock-star front man. The Who's deaf-dumb-and-blind-guy opus was the turning point of its career – and the beginning of the end as far as its relationship with its game-changing managers.

The high tension of Cooper's film has to do with the creative ownership of Tommy. Townshend and Stamp tell different versions of the story, when it comes to the album's conception. Either way, after Tommy, the life of Lambert – a "frustrated composer," according to Townshend, "who encouraged the preposterous, the dangerous and the absurd" – spiralled downward into addiction. Townshend never successfully collaborated with him again.

In the early 1970s, lawsuits and accusations flew between the Who and their artful managers, the trust and spark gone. Drummer Moon was a Lambert loyalist, but the only one. A down-and-out Lambert would die, from a fall, in 1981. The loonish Moon had died in 1978; Entwistle made it to 2002. All were rock and roll victims.

Stamp, who outlasted those three, is the film's delightful interviewee presence. Still dashing into his late 60s, he made peace with his colourful past before dying in 2012. And if he laments never having made the films he wished to, this documentary is his closure. As he says of the band and its two heady managers: "We were there for each other in an unheroic way – in a sensitive and frightening way."

Who made who? They made each other.