Biographical music documentaries usually fall in one of two categories: there are the worshipful nostalgia pieces, made for fans by fans, that seek to immerse the viewer in a completist bubble bath of hits and ephemera; then there are the elegiac tributes, following a familiar skyrocket-and-crash narrative of an artist who tragically left the world too soon. Both ultimately cement the untouchable reputation of the artist in question, even if the path is a little unpleasant.
Artist & Repertoire, an exhaustively sourced new documentary about Mo'Wax Records founder and UNKLE mastermind James Lavelle is a little of both, but it's anything but a deification. Cobbled together from innumerable hours of personal and footage from Lavelle and former collaborator DJ Shadow (aka Josh Davis), as well as archival interviews, first-time feature director Matt Jones builds a decade-spanning narrative of an artist's rise and fall that just so happens to run parallel to the rise and fall of the record industry.
a time and a place in music that could never be repeated
Lavelle started seminal trip-hop label Mo'Wax in 1992, at the age of 18. By 1996, the label had released Shadow's classic debut Endtroducing... and Lavelle and Davis began collaborating as UNKLE. More of a series of A&R coups (hence the film's title) than a traditional musical outfit, UNKLE pioneered the contemporary star-studded collaboration album, and their debut LP Psyence Fiction was an instant classic, selling over a million copies. Of course, this was in 1998, a year the music industry famously reached its peak of profitability before Napster showed up and blew it all to bits. In the years after — and Jones follows him all the way to 2014 — Lavelle continually tries and fails to reach that same creative and commercial high, just as the industry is running around in similar circles.
Artist and Repertoire is not an easy watch; frequently so frank about Lavelle's unflattering failures that it's surprising he signed off on it. But as I spoke to Jones and producer Brian A. Hoffman at SXSW, where the film had its world premiere, it became clear that everyone involved in the project was aware of the film's value as much more than a nostalgia piece. It's a clear-eyed portrait of a time and a place in music that could never be repeated, and a guy who had the knack to play it all to his advantage, at least for a little while.
Emily Yoshida: Matt, this was your first feature documentary, but the access and the span of it is huge. How did you first get introduced to James and how did you end up with the amount of access that you did?
Matt Jones: It was very organic... I suppose I should start with the story of how the film came about. I picked up a camera first in 2006, and we originally planned to just do a tour film of the UNKLE album War Stories. Then it kind of evolved. There was such a richer past, a richer story than we thought. And James, very kindly, was really trusting.
Probably the biggest breakthrough came after filming after about two years. He called us into his studio office and he pulled out this plastic box of tapes. [slams an imaginary crate on the table] "There you go, probably some good stuff on there." And some of it was on this format that I'd never seen before, MicroMV, which is a Sony proprietary format they did in the ‘90s for Handycam. We didn't even know how to play, it so we had to buy a player off eBay, and then play into the computer.
Brian A. Hoffman: But that's part of the fun, right?
Jones: It had variable frame rate, and if you know what that means, that's hell. That led to some of the most amazing footage, and he didn't even know it was on there. He hadn't looked at it since he shot it. That was when we first thought, OK, there must be more archival footage from this time. We found stuff from MTV, people were finding stuff in their parents' attics, dusting off old tapes. Someone else had started making a documentary on [Acid Jazz Records co-founder and DJ] Gilles Peterson, who worked with James — and then never finished the documentary. They just left these Super 16 rushes that we ended up using quite a lot.
"He didn't want it to be a sycophantic greatest hits documentary."
We only shot about a third of the film. Most of it is archival. And I think that rich tapestry is what gives the film its identity. Some of it's from MTV, some of it's from Channel Four, some is from YTV. Then the biggest breakthrough [with archival access] happened late in the process. We showed a cut to DJ Shadow and he goes "OK, I'll let you have my personal tapes, too." Loads of photos he'd never shown to anyone, videos...
Hoffman: He became a real friend to project. It was hard to break through, but once we did...
That had to be a big boost of confidence — that one of the main figures in the film wanted to help in the process.
Jones: I mean, they didn't have creative sign off, but I think [Shadow and Lavelle] found the film to be truthful, and they wanted to help make it more in depth and real.
I'm curious about that — it's a very warts-and-all documentary. How did you gain that trust from Lavelle to go as deep as you did?
Jones: It's been over ten years. I think James saw that if we are sticking around for ten years, we're not messing around. We were there to make something that was worthwhile, something that everyone could be proud of afterwards. He also said it needs to be warts and all. He didn't want it to be a sycophantic "greatest hits of UNKLE" documentary on screen. That's what's going to make compelling cinema is to show people's flaws. And people relate to people's mistakes more than they relate to their successes. Especially with James Lavelle. Who else had a big album like that? But the issues he's had in his personal life, the divorces — there's a lot to relate to there.
I think the main thing is friendship. And people losing friends as they get older. And that it's really important to stay in touch with some of your oldest friends.
I'm sure you've seen Amy. We're getting into this era where everyone — artists, especially — are self-documenting. If you want to go and do a big comprehensive documentary about them, there is so much to work with. That seems like a very contemporary phenomenon. James even brought a camcorder into his label meetings.
Jones: Artists that come out of the '90s, basically everything they've done, every gig they been at, has been filmed.
Hoffman: And there will only be more and more [footage available]...
Jones: I think it's going to get hard, though. There are a bunch of films now that are fun. As in, at least it ended up on tapes... and was dropped in a box... and got labeled. (And dusty. And warped.) But I don't know where my old phone is that has videos on it. We might lose a lot of stuff.
I imagine you went into the initial project with a preconceived notion of the arc of Lavelle's life. But getting all that footage is almost like having someone's DNA, just through all the stuff they documented themselves with. How much was your preconceived notion verified, and how much surprised you when you actually started going through the tapes?
Jones: We didn't edit until after we heard he had got [the curator position for the 2014 Meltdown festival]. Before that we had a stockpile of footage. But with Meltdown, and the all the activity around him doing a book, and doing an exhibition about his past, we thought, "this is our ending." So when we started [editing], I knew I wanted the first half hour, 40 minutes to be like this rise at a 100 miles an hour, really fast paced. And we wanted to keep it linear so you go along for the journey with him and you see him get older and older and older. I think that's much more compelling than doing lots of flashbacks.
Hoffman: He has different looks in every era, like you can almost see what drugs he's doing by the look on his face. "This is his coke time." "This is his booze time." He gets fatter, looks really sweaty, pupils dilated, constantly chain smoking — I know what that means. You go on that ride with him, too. The visceral side of it.
If you talk to people who edit reality TV, and who spend all day going through this footage of the most mundane stuff from a person's life, they'll tell you — even editors who have never met the people on screen before — that you get to feel this almost physical connection to the subjects.
Jones: I mean, we had 700 hours of footage. We could have made the film 10 different ways. I think we've ended up with the best version. We wanted to have a positive ending because the film was... James has been through a heck of a lot.
Hoffman: Meltdown was a gift to us.
Jones: And to him.
Hoffman: And to bring Shadow back [at the end], it made us closer to Shadow, too. Josh is such a reasonable guy. But James is the nut you see on screen, for better or worse. Warts and all. But Josh is like, he's from San Francisco, he's just like a normal dude. James is James.
Jones: You see him go through so much that nobody would want to go through. Two businesses failing. Splitting up with the mother of his child.
Hoffman: He's got a full adult experience.
Jones: Fortunately, he doesn't die in the film. There is a thing that's happened in docs over the past few years about people dying [in the film], you had the Marlon Brando one, you had the Kurt Cobain one, Amy, Senna ... everyone in those films dies!
Well it is a really easy endpoint to work up to.
Jones: But I think it's great that [Artist and Repertoire] has the more positive message and celebration of music at the end.
One thing you mentioned in Q&A after the film is how perfectly James' story overlaps with what's happening in the music industry at the time.
Jones: Yeah, that's what we wanted it to do. We wanted it to mirror the fluctuations of the the music industry over the same period of his life. We use a graph in the film — you can see CD sales reached their zenith the year Psyence Fiction came out. And the year after, sales fell of a cliff because [file sharing] arrives. So the same thing happens to James.
Hoffman: Also, the guy from XL, Martin Mills — as he says, James was so great at creating and providing the artifact, all the stuff that goes with [the album's packaging]. And when the artifact goes away, you've kind of neutered some of that expertise. And he really was amazing. Going to that exhibition was awesome. That stuff is cool — the toys are so cool.
Jones: I think the world needs more packaging, personally. I like packaging. Maybe it's my generation. [Laughs]
All of the special edition toys and shoes and collectibles were very ahead of their time. That predates Gorillaz, that predates Yeezys.
Jones: James has said that [Gorillaz creator] Damon Albarn spoke to him and said "Hey James, I'm doing a project completely copying what you did with UNKLE." I know that conversation happened.
James is friends with everyone in the UK music scene. That's, again, what makes it so interesting. You know, he's been at the center of that whole culture of the past 25 years.
There's an underlying theme in the film about everyone having their time. As ahead of his time as James was when he started out, when he's struggling in the aughts and dance music and DJ culture really starts to blow up all over the world, he misses that wave.
Jones: Yeah, he should have gone down that route.
Hoffman: The A&M executive we interviewed said that, he said that if you get six years where you are a seminal figure creating a whole new thing, and you create that album that is just a masterpiece — you're good! You can't ask for more than that. And he reiterated that to me over and over off camera, too. He's like, "I don't know what why James keeps trying." Because the truth is, that's what everyone tries for for their whole lives. It's hard when you get it at 21.
Jones: The other thing is... with that burden of having it so young, you think you're just starting out, and everyone else is like, "OK, you're done. You've had your big hit, that's it."
But he's stubborn about it. The word "naïve" keeps coming up in the film and it's not a knock, necessarily. It's what keeps him going.
Hoffman: What I respect most is that he wears his heart on his sleeve. And he does what he believes in. And sometimes that's cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Jones: And the naiveté becomes his biggest asset. Really. It still is. I think if James wants to do something he gets on with it and just does it. I heard a story about how he got those [UNKLE] Nike trainers. He was asked to go to a meeting with some Nike execs and he said to them, at dinner — he'd never met them before — "How about I do some trainers for you?" He's really forward with that kind of thing. And he goes after what he wants. And I think that's really endearing.
It also comes from a place of privilege. And you can see that start to affect his career. The film starts with footage of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and all these artists that originally influenced him as he curated the trip-hop sound. And then once he becomes hugely successful, he starts working with a bunch of white rock artists. The cast around him changes dramatically, along with his behavior. What was your take on that?
Jones: I think it was a misguided decision. But there are also some great songs. And it's two sides to the story, really. On the one hand, he probably should have done the electronic dance thing. But he would say his second album was the electronic dance thing. In his eyes, he's moving on and trying something fresh. Trying always, doing something people wouldn't expect. But from my point of view, it's a hip hop documentary that goes a little bit wrong. Because really, all of his influences are hip hop.
"It's a hip hop documentary that goes a little bit wrong."
Hoffman: The company you keep is dictated by the lifestyle choices you make. I don't want to say any more than that. But you see how his eyes look, how he's sweating. He was going in that direction, and those were the people going in that direction and the hip hop guys weren't going in that direction.
Jones: I do think UNKLE should make a hip hop album. Like full-on, get the world's best hip hop stars and do their thing. They can't touch Psyence Fiction, with Kool G Rap and Mike D, but I think there is more to come from that side of it. And yeah, that was their number one influence; hip hop is where it all started. Mo'Wax is basically a hip hop label, but through slight influences of skating, and the London influence of drum and bass, it turned into the trip hop thing.
I'm assuming James has seen the film. What was his response?
Jones: Look, it's hard for someone...
Hoffman: I wouldn't want to watch a movie about me.
Jones: It's hard. It was an emotional watch for him. But the emotional feedback we got from him on that led to us doing another interview with the Turner Prize nominee Nathan Coley, — he said, "You've got to speak to Nathan." And that I think made the film even more insightful. He also gave us a bunch of photographs as well, which he thought would help. So hats off for the man for sitting through two hours of your successes and failures, ‘cause it's a hard thing to do. The advice he gave us after the screening only made the film better. He's on it. Even when it's him on the screen, he has ability to sit back and say "OK, there were parts where it was dragging." He advised us to cut down, and I agreed.
He has that perspective, which is quite a unique gift. He's kind of like a brand manager. And he kind of guided UNKLE like a director would guide a film.