The rise, fall and eventual rise again of James Lavelle, vinyl junkie turned trailblazing record label producer and creative figurehead of musical outfit UNKLE, may be an overly familiar tale of the young ingénue who succumbs to his own bloated ego and lifestyle excesses.
But what gives The Man From Mo’Wax character and depth, lifting it above and beyond that usual portrayal of talent gone awry, is the compelling central figure. No stone is left unturned by director Matthew Jones as the film tracks Lavelle from a gangly bespectacled hip hop-fixated teen, right though to a triumphant return via his gig as curator of London’s South Bank Meltdown festival back in 2014. Unexpectedly, even Lavelle’s own mum appears throughout to offer her own perspective of his life and career.
The majority of The Man From Mo’Wax is told through archival footage, with much of it supplied by Lavelle’s own video diaries he’s filmed over the years – presumably the ultimate boon for a documentary-maker. Throughout we see the bridges he’s burned – both profession and personal – new allegiances formed, alongside talent being fostered, all in the name of creating and maintaining his Mo’Wax empire.
As to be expected, his extremely fruitful working relationship with Josh Davies (aka DJ Shadow) – which yielded the genre-smashing, now classic hip hop album Endtroducing… – is given a sizable chunk of the film’s running time, and rightly so. Their fast friendship and love for the music is infectious and this period in Lavelle’s life is where the film truly comes alive, particularly those moments when we see the excitable duo, via hazy video camera footage, sifting through mammoth stacks of grubby discarded vinyl like a pair of geeky little Indiana Jones’.
Another frequent musical collaborator, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, paints the picture of Lavelle as a troubled maverick, and it’s the latter half of the doc where this becomes painfully apparent. It’s also unfortunately where the momentum drops a little and the film slides into self-indulgence (UNKLE’s torturous 2009 recording sessions are given too much screen time). Nevertheless, this is an engrossing portrait of an impresario and A&R man who dreamt big.
Ex-UNKLE member Rich File describes Lavelle best as “where an artist may use a paintbrush, James will use a person” and that really underscores both his strengths and limitations as an artist. While it’s obvious that fans of Lavelle and his many creative ventures will get the most out of The Man From Mo’Wax, this remains a fascinating insight into both the hubris and vulnerability of the music industry, which never shies away from casting it’s subject matter in a sometimes unfavourable light.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76