The Man from Mo’Wax is a very strange music documentary. Most films of this ilk are glowing accounts of an individual or band’s inexorable rise to the top of the charts, demonstrating their musical virtuosity, inherent genius and the growing adoration of their fans. Here that curve is inverted, director Matthew Jones painstakingly dissecting a person with next to no discernible musical talent as his career crashes and burns.
That person is producer and DJ James Lavelle – hardly a household name – yet kind of an icon to dance music aficionados. His career spans three distinct periods: the first is that of a musically teenage wunderkind who sets up his own cooler than cool record label, Mo’Wax Records. The second is as creative leader of UNKLE, where he collaborated with various musical legends to create a series of increasingly poorly received and badly selling albums. The third follows the disintegration of his personal and professional life, the lasting image being of a sad and lonely man trapped in a storage space surrounded by his broken dreams.
For the record, I like James Lavelle and think that, despite their mixed-to-bad critical reception, the UNKLE albums are pretty damn cool. Some of my happiest nights out have been to see him DJ in Manchester, Fabric (RIP) and various music festivals. One time, after a killer set in Sankeys Soap in 2003 or so, he even came back to our student house to mess around on our crappy belt-driven decks and drank neat vodka out of a teapot. For this alone he’s forever in my good books.
However, what The Man from Mo’Wax repeatedly impresses upon us that Lavelle doesn’t just have unpleasant egomaniacal tendencies, he also can’t sing, can’t play any instruments and can’t really write songs. It makes him a curious subject for music documentary, and we see his role in the UNKLE project more of a glorified A&R man than musician: DJ Shadow or Richard File writing the music and Lavelle using his impressive industry rolodex to get star vocalists like Thom Yorke, Mike D and Josh Homme to appear on the tracks.
As such, his professional music collaborators often speak about his contributions with a certain sniffiness. And, it has to be said, they’ve got a damn good point. DJ Shadow, who is a straight-up musical genius, understandably gets a bit miffed when Lavelle asks for co-writing credit on Psyence Fiction. Lavelle doesn’t get what he wants (his lack of writing credits on anything UNKLE later comes back to financially bite him in the ass), and in their sole live appearance together on Top of the Pops, is humiliatingly reduced to playing a couple of notes on a mellotron (which may or may not be plugged in) and then sitting at the rear of the stage awkwardly rocking back and forth.
It gets worse. As album sales shrink Lavelle can’t get the names he’s accustomed to and ends up doing his own vocals. Interviewees cringe as they recall this, and Jones helpfully serves up raw studio audio of a brave Lavelle giving it a go and falling short. The embarrassments do not let up: blistering excerpts from his bad reviews are plastered across the screen (“derivative,” “stodgy,” and “waste of time”), a helpful infographic charts his waning sales and we’re treated to a close-up footage of a pudgy, clearly depressed Lavelle on the verge of tears.
Absolute rock-bottom comes with an extended look at the production of UNKLE’s fourth album, which vanished without a trace so quickly that even I, a fan of the band, had never heard of it. Like a cross between Let It Be and Spinal Tap, this uncomfortably tense sequence consists of stressed, sleep deprived middle-aged men in trendy T-shirts blearily staring at project management documents as they realize just how much money they’re about to lose.
Jones is clinically dispassionate in his autopsy of Lavelle’s career, and on top of that there’s the realization that Lavelle must have given the go-head to be treated like this. Thank god that he’s so open about his failures, because his snowballing misery is cinematic gold.
The documentary repeatedly highlights the sharp contrast between the cocky twenty year old with his teased blonde spikes and the forlorn forty-something suffering under the weight of a two decade-long rave. Perhaps most illustrative is when the boy with the world at his feet smirks and says “if it all goes wrong at least I’ll have a collection of really cool-looking records.” Well, it does all go wrong, and it’s a heartbreaking to see Lavelle miserably picking over his unsold really cool-looking records in a Somerset storage space, looking a bit like a dance music Alan Partridge.
This is scorched earth documentary filmmaking, all justified by the fact that Jones does eventually manage to justify why Lavelle is some kind of a genius. Hip-hop legends cut up old records for samples and weave them together to make something new. DJs take other people’s records and create mixes that are far more than the sum of their parts. Jones successfully argues that Lavelle does this too, just with people instead of samples: who else would pair up Ian Brown and DJ Shadow?
As we realize that, the film kicks off its mercifully happy ending: the out-of-the-blue decision to give the then washed-up Lavelle curatorship of Meltdown Festival, an honour previously accorded to stars like David Bowie, Morrissey and Nick Cave. He nails it, and it’s an emotional crescendo that’s well-earned.
I learned more than I ever wanted or needed to know about James Lavelle over the course of The Man from Mo’Wax. He cuts a tragi-comic figure from beginning to end: pouring money into flights of fantasy, constantly over-estimating his own skills and often behaving like a bit of a dick. But Matthew Jones’ documentary makes him a fascinating study in failure, not to mention successfully tying his personal predicaments to the music industry at large.
Clinically rigorous and hugely entertaining, The Man from Mo’Wax is a forthright examination of failure and disappointment. There’s not many music documentaries that can touch it.