There are few filmmakers working today quite as innovative as Michael Winterbottom, who has an inclination to blur the line between reality and fiction in a way few manage. His latest endeavour, the documentary On the Road, following Wolf Alice as they embark on a UK tour, is no different, injecting fiction into this narrative, ensuring that the aforementioned indie outfit have a piece of cinema about them to cherish.
We begin at the very start of the tour, and we adopt the perspective of Estelle (Leah Harvey) – a vital inclusion as she’s new, meeting the band for the very first time, representing the viewer as we too adjust to this way of living. Laid back and easy to get along with, she has no problems fitting in, getting along well with Wolf Alice’s lead singer Ellie Roswell, and indulging in a romantic relationship with roadie Joe (James McArdle).
As the title alludes to, this is a film that studies what its like to be on the road, thriving in the mundane; the travelling, the conversation, the sound-checks. You don’t need to be a fan of Wolf Alice to appreciate this either, and while it may make the live performances somewhat less enjoyable, there’s so much more to this than music. The shows do serve a purpose, of course, for we need to see what it’s all for, and when the fans are singing, and taking selfies, you realise why these people have sacrificed so much; for them. Winterbottom ensures the film is fast-paced too, with so few scenes lasting any longer than a minute. This is helpful to those less accustomed with the music, whereas if you take Shane Meadows’ Made of Stone, for instance, which will happily show an 11 minute live version of Fools Gold, that feature was a love letter to a band, this is a love letter to the art of being on tour, and showing lengthy musical numbers would potentially alienate many viewers.
It’s fascinating to see how much music plays a part behind the scenes too, with some of the film’s most memorable moments often just spontaneous jamming sessions, as the consistent sound of an acoustic guitar, playing imperfect melodies, makes up much of the background noise. Even during more dramatic, staged sequences – such as when Estelle and Joe have sex, we hear music from the tour play over the top, which fits well, allowing no need for any added soundtrack when the narrative revolves around a band who specialise in providing just that. The romantic sub-plot works too, and while often romance can so often be shoehorned into a feature in a horribly contrived way, here it feels so natural, and perhaps that’s because Winterbottom has set this up as a documentary first, meaning that anything fictional feels entirely genuine and authentic in its inclusion. It also shows the filmmaker to be lovingly adhering to cinematic tropes, as the viewers are granted a romance to invest in.
Another means of subverting expectations, something Winterbottom does rather well, is by having everyone get along. You may anticipate that being tedious and dull, but it puts the emphasis on the relationships, and the diligence of the crew. It’s not a sex, drugs and rock and roll sort of affair, we deal primarily in the latter. There’s one moment where a gig finishes and the band can be heard saying, “That was a good gig I thought,” before another replies, “Yeah they really liked it”. It’s so British.
By the close of play it’s a real shame to have to say goodbye, as we don’t quite feel ready to leave this tour. But it doesn’t last forever, and that’s a notion explored, as these are fleeting relationships, people coming and going, nobody in a fixed place for any one time, never staying put. It evokes that same sense of instantaneous nostalgia you feel after returning home from a festival or a holiday, reluctantly readjusting to normality, not quite ready to start life properly again. On the Road really evokes that emotion, and while it’s not a particularly nice one, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat unfulfilled, it’s commendable nonetheless that the director has managed to stir it up quite so well.