Michael Winterbottom has always been one for experimentation. With ‘9 Songs’ he attempted to make a romantic porno. With the TV series The Trip, he got three very funny series out of two unscripted middle-aged men just having lunch. With A Cock And Bull Story he adapted the ‘unfilmable’ novel Tristram Shandy by showing the impossibility of adapting it. He’s made plenty of other more straightforward movies – 24 Hour Party People, The Look Of Love – but On The Road definitely belongs in the experimental pile.
It’s a mostly-documentary account of life on the road with the band Wolf Alice. The band are real, obviously, as are most of the people they encounter (including NME’s own Mark Beaumont, surely in contention for a BAFTA as ‘briefly appearing music journalist’), but among their crew are two actors, playing out a slow romance in this strange little traveling community. Leah Harvey is Estelle, a young representative of the band’s label. James McArdle is Joe, a 20-something roadie who always looks in need of another two hours of sleep.
McArdle and Harvey are so natural that you wouldn’t know they were actors, if not for the fact we quite frequently see them having sex. Their story isn’t unusual – they’re just two people finding affection in an isolated situation – but it adds a new dimension to the music documentary format. Winterbottom gives us a full sense of what it’s like to be touring for months – the buzz of performing to elated capacity crowds; the boredom of doing radio interviews for hosts who only engage you until it’s time for the next ad break; the nonsense conversations you have to pass the time with people you see almost 24/7. Then the dramatised moments give us more of a sense of why people tour and what music means to fans. When a live performance is intercut with Estelle and Joe in bed, it becomes a soundtrack to people’s lives.
The film stops being about the band and becomes about what their work means. Not all Winterbottom’s experiments pay off, but this one absolutely does.