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The New Wolf Alice Film Isn't Really a Wolf Alice Film

Michael Winterbottom's 'On the Road' is more about a fictional love story and the monotony of touring. It's still good, though.

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13 October 2017, 10:30am

All photos via PR

Summer flings are the shit. I'm not talking about game-changing, life-affirming stuff here. I mean the sort of infatuation where your skin's drawn to that of your temporary love, as though bound by the sticky drip of an ice lolly. The two-week feeling when it's hard to tell whether your head's gone all funny because you're drunk on that 'they fancy me back!!' sensation or are just having a bout of sunstroke.

The ephemeral nature of those relationships is what makes them so great; there isn't enough time to argue. I remember copping off with two different guys over one summer in Switzerland as a pre-teen, my stomach jolting into my throat – and that wasn't just because my first crush of that season was swinging me over his head at a pool party. And so any situation that temporarily pulls you out of your usual routine – a beach holiday, a four-week summer job, a few intense months shooting a film – becomes ample breeding ground for a fling.

Touring with a band is no different, really, as Michael Winterbottom's new part-music documentary, part-love story On the Road attests. It weaves the story of two fictional characters – tour manager Estelle and crew hand Joe – into actual real footage of London indie rock group Wolf Alice as they're driven from city to city on tour. But, for a film that looks at the outset like a straight music doc, the band aren't the film's real focus. Monotony is, and routine. Not sure if you've ever been on tour when you weren't a millionaire, but it's not as sexy and fun as Almost Famous made it seem. It's repetitive and sometimes uncomfortable and you eat so much beige food your bowels can cease to remember their purpose after about five days. That drudgery is the initial takeaway from a film that's ultimately about how romance can wilt when taken out of the very specific context that brings lovers together. On the Road, with its docu-drama setup that pulls you between real stuff happening on tour and Estelle and Joe's made-up narrative, is weird enough to just about work.

Winterbottom openly says that the film's structure was never written in stone. I meet him during one of those press junket days where a firm PR agent ushers you into a bland conference room, in which an award-winning director sits alone waiting for you and then some other journalist to pound through your 15-minute interview slots. "I suppose I didn't have a strong conception of what the film 'should be'," Winterbottom says, speaking at a pace so quick that his words race themselves out of his mouth. "Whatever band I'd picked would have made for a completely different film, really: we were just following them. I wanted it to be a young band, a band that plays live, a band that moves around in a bus, going around Britain. And I guess some bands may have had a bit more chaos in their lives." He laughs.

In the reviews of the film, and some of the coverage of Wolf Alice more generally, a lot's been made of how lowkey they are. When the film takes you backstage with singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell, drummer Joel Amey, guitarist Joff Odie and bassist Theo Ellis, you don't see tantrums or coke-snorting excess. As drummer Joel Amey put it, to the Guardian earlier this year: "we're not chucking stuff out of hotel rooms and being dicks. But there definitely is that whole motion of the tour: it keeps going and going and going. For a month you just focus on an hour each day, and that one hour is the most intense hour of anything else you've ever done in your life."

So in the classic "sex, drugs, rock'n'roll" trifecta, the only sex comes courtesy of lead actress Leah Harper's Estelle character – the band's fictional tour manager – practically shagging the beard off Joe, played by James McArdle. They're the only people on the bus who aren't playing themselves, but were immersed so far in character that, Winterbottom says, it became hard to tell the difference. "With Leah especially – since there was no character she 'had' to be – we thought we might as well have a version of her in Estelle. There wasn't really a script. We knew Leah and James would have some sort of relationship, and the end of the tour would be the end of that, but that was about it."

What you're left with is a film where Leah/Estelle becomes the lead – something refreshing and uplifting to see, since only 13 percent of British films between 2006 and 2016 cast a black person in the lead role, 59 percent don't have black actors in any role and overall women made up 30 percent of actors cast in all British films this year. I bring this up because the representation of women – making them just regular parts of the whole touring apparatus – works in two ways in the film. "Because Ellie is a fe… woman," Michael says, "I think the gigs had a different atmosphere than if the band had been all male. Wolf Alice play the sort of music I like, which generally sits in a sort of 'boysy' atmosphere, and the crew on this were all male. When you look at the crowd, though, the first few rows were almost always teenage girls, you know, who wanted to 'be' Ellie, are inspired by her. That atmosphere was great," he says beaming.

Then, of course, there's Estelle as the protagonist. She's laidback, a blank slate of a character as she handles both this manager role and gets to know the band – and remember, this is all happening in real time, too, as the real actor Leah gets to know Wolf Alice at the same time. Watching a woman with natural, tightly coiled afro hair wrap it before sleeping in a pokey bus bunk evokes a similar sensation to the one I felt as Viola Davis' Annalise Keating pulled her wig and false lashes off on the fourth episode of How to Get Away with Murder's first season, revealing her "real" hair. On the Road makes public what's a private ritual to so many black women, without fuss. Michael's filmography, from 'full of real sex' 9 Songs to 24-Hour Party People already demonstrates how little he shies from presenting things as they are. The sex scenes too maintain that plain, almost shrugged realism.

This all means the band are bundled somewhere towards the back of your mind. Their bone-jangling performances shake you back awake, though, as the road blurs each city into the next. Belfast. Dublin. Liverpool. Norwich. Oxford. Glasgow. York. Folkestone. To capture those candid moments between shows, did Michael and his small crew elect to nudge their cameras up as close as they could? "No no, the opposite," he says. "What we said was, 'we're going to keep out of your way.' I didn't feel we would get any intimate moments with the band. Estelle, being the new person on tour, was like the buffer between us and them. If she'd walk into their space in the dressing room or whatever, it felt like we came in with her and then walked out with her. So I hope that meant it felt less intrusive."

Whether nosey or not, it's an accomplished effort at a film that must've been a headache to piece together. By the end, the love story looks as doomed as any of your seasonal flings. But, hey, a short-term setup has its perks when both cast and crew are quite literally living on a tour bus. "I hated the bus," Michael says, laughing from right in his chest. "Fortunately the tour was just three-and-a-half, four weeks, and occasionally we were able to get away when the bands had days off between cities. But it was horrific." He lets out another huge throaty laugh. Fair enough: every fling has its expiry date.

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