James Lavelle's career in showbusiness traced a familiar path, from wild imagination and ambition driving him forward to success, to falling out with his friends when he got too big for his boots, to eventual massive debt and drink and drugs problems. Highs and lows, it happens to many creative types, but Lavelle was different for what he was selling, yes, it was the tale of rock 'n' roll and all the issues that arise, but he was not a traditional musician, he was an organiser who after growing up obsessed with science fiction and music, found he could combine the two when he embraced hip hop to create his own record label. But was that his only talent? Could he do anything else?
Mo'Wax was that label, which for the nineteen-nineties was probably the coolest around thanks to it surfing the zeitgeist of music, or whatever cliché you want to apply, but it was true the sampling culture that really took hold that decade was cultivated by Lavelle's love of the collages and mixtures you could achieve with old and new sounds, chiefly new rap over old beats and breaks. But as director Matthew Jones' documentary lays out, just because you have a very good ear for what can be achieved in music does not necessarily mean you have the skills to craft it yourself, and though Lavelle started his career as a club DJ, he was still using other people's work to succeed.
This was the not-so-subtle theme running through the film, that you could be as enthusiastic as you liked, but if you were not authoring the tunes and/or lyrics yourself, what were you for? You could split the story into two halves, one the rise, the second the fall, and the fact this was more or less the pattern of every meteoric hitmaker did mean Jones had to stick to conventional style of telling his account. Basically, talking heads and clips were what this consisted of, with a smattering of recent stuff so we could tell where Lavelle was at after the dust had settled. And the answer to that question above was that you had the ability to bring people to the entertainment they could love.
So if you were a music fan who discovered tracks, or even albums, old or new, because of folks like Lavelle - you hesitate to call him an enabler - then you had a lot to thank him for, but there was a crisis at the heart of such a person, that they may well feel they have achieved nothing of their own. Our subject coped with that by teaming up with collaborators who could bolster his notions of being an artist, initially, and most successfully, his discovery DJ Shadow, whose Endtroducing album was an absolute game changer (to use another cliché - but it's accurate). He created a truly futuristic sound from the detritus of second hand record shops, and many have tried and failed to recreate that power, not least Lavelle when they made the Psyence Fiction album together in the years leading up to its eventual release in 1998.
Indeed, it took so long to release the music journalists got fed up of hearing about it and gave it lukewarm to hostile reviews, but it didn't matter: as Britpop had soured into self-pity and cynicism, and before dance pop reasserted itself as the millennium arrived, the first Unkle record sounded like the sound of things to come in a way that Lavelle's beloved science fiction (Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner, and so on) did. This film argues it really wasn't, and once the duo had fallen out, every attempt by Lavelle to revive the brand was doomed to increasing indifference (did you know there were four Unkle albums?), leading to footage of him struggling to get his act together, literally, as the spectre of The Troggs Tapes looms large with crushing inevitability. Throughout, the feeling that Lavelle really needed to learn from his mistakes, and wasn't, offered him his Citizen Kane moment amid his warehouse of belongings, but this did end on a moment of redemption and hope; just as well, for the self-destruction on display almost overshadowed the great music he ushered in.
[From the BFI, you can buy this on a special Blu-ray/DVD box set, limited editions of 3000 copies. Along with the above doc, you get these extensive features:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Includes 48 printed pages featuring foreword by James Lavelle and director's notes
Photos from B+, Will Bankhead, Beezer, James Dimmock, Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones
Artwork from Futura, Robert Del Naja (3D), Ken Taylor, Swifty and Ben Drury
Audio commentary by director Matthew Jones
Audio commentary by producer M J McMahon
The Mo'Wax Vaults: Extended interview with James Lavelle and DJ Shadow (2018, 68 mins)
The Mo'Wax Vaults:The Lost Men from Unkle (2018, 14 mins): featurette on the early pre Psyence Fiction UNKLE and how DJ Shadow came into the fold
The Mo'Wax Vaults: Interview Mix Tape (2018, 25 mins): extended interview mash-up with Joshua Homme, Futura, DJ Shadow, Ian Brown and more
The Mo'Wax Vaults: Asthetic Origins (2018, 22 mins): designers Swifty and Ben Drury with artist Futura discuss the stories and methodology behind the Mo'Wax visual identity
The Mo'Wax Vaults: UNKLE Mark 4 : (2018, 16 mins) Matt Puffett & Jack Leonard, key collaborators on UNKLE album The Road discuss their latest incarnation of UNKLE and working with James Lavelle
The Mo'Wax Vaults: Straight No Chaser Promo (2018, 6 mins): James Lavelle worked for Straight No Chaser as a columnist between 1992-1994 writing his column 'Mo'Wax'