The Man from Mo’Wax, backed with National Lottery money via the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 31 August 2018
By 1998 it was clear that britpop was on the wane. Oasis, the band that came to define the era, had released their third album, Be Here Now, and their ingredients were starting to go stale. By the end of August of the same year, James’ Best Of compilation album sat at number one in the album charts, with James Horner’s sentimental soundtrack to Titanic at number two. It may not have sunk, but the UK’s music scene was certainly in the doldrums.
However, that same week, an album appeared that would dramatically shift Britain’s musical landscape – Unkle’s Psyence Fiction. With sci-fi inspirations from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982), and featuring the talents of Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke, Ian Brown and Kool G Rap, this was the debut album of Mo’Wax label founder James Lavelle, collaborating with Californian-born Josh Davis, better known to the world as DJ Shadow.
Twenty years on, first-time feature director Matthew Jones has charted the journey of James Lavelle and his now legendary music label in a new documentary: The Man from Mo’Wax.
Watch the trailer for The Man from Mo’Wax
Lavelle came to the London music scene as a DJ in the mid-90s, while still in his teens. His career trajectory went at lightspeed, seeing him sign acts for his newly created label while DJing nights at Blue Note in Hoxton Square and The Fridge in Brixton. His initial success was both a blessing and curse, and part of The Man from Mo’Wax charts how Lavelle has struggled to best the triumphant reception of Psyence Fiction. Jones’ documentary also examines Lavelle as an artist who, while not necessarily making the music, was the force behind it all.
Collating a staggering 700 hours of material, from personal archive footage captured on handycams to newly recorded interviews with collaborators, the documentary is an enthralling account of Lavelle’s life. It also acts as a historic snapshot of the London music scene of the late 90s and early 2000s.
“It was never intended to be a feature film when we started out,” begins Jones, sitting in his office in east London. The original concept was to make a series of short tour diaries around the release of Unkle’s third album, War Stories. While touring with the band, who were collaborating at the time with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and producer-musician Chris Goss, Jones struck on the idea of an altogether grander project. “We thought that there was a really good story there about a London-based, independent, underground record label, that broke barriers and was underneath britpop.”
This was back in 2007. Once Unkle had finished touring, Jones was invited to stay on for their next album, End Titles… Stories for Film. While his own film was starting to take shape, the director was unsure how it would hang together. Jones had charted the rise and the fall of Mo’Wax, but he felt it would be wrong to end the film on a downer. “We decided that we would stick around and see what happened,” says Jones.
Then, in late 2013, something came along that would perfectly cap off the film. James Lavelle had been invited to curate the 2014 iteration of the Meltdown festival on London’s Southbank. “We thought this was great, and it would give us our ending.”
While Jones was spoilt for choice with footage captured on tour, archive material was more of a problem. “There was very little material for the first half of the Mo’Wax period, between 1992 and 2002.”
Jones contacted every person who had ever worked with Unkle and would go through every scrap of material, however small. “We were searching for things we weren’t sure existed. We were doing the equivalent of what Shadow did to make Endtroducing – searching through libraries, sending off emails and ringing people.”
Masses of material was assembled in the end. Constructing the documentary with such a vast amount of footage was no mean feat. “It took our editor, Alec Rossiter, six months to get up to speed and watch everything and log the best bits.” They had the arc of the film, but Jones took a fluid approach to the filmmaking – more out of necessity than choice. “We were cutting and cutting, then we did loads of interviews during Meltdown. Then we would drop those into the edit – which was a bit of a nightmare.”
This fluid approach was adopted right up to the last minute. The film now being released is different to the cut they showed at SXSW, where the film premiered. “That was really a rough cut of the film that was nearly 18 minutes longer than the cut that is coming out in cinemas. It also had six fewer interviews and less archive material.”
In fact, it was only after the initial screening that they captured one of the film’s most important interviews, with former Unkle collaborator Pablo Clements. “I think a lot of people came forward to do interviews because they realised that the film was real, and they wanted to be part of the documenting of what Mo’Wax was.” In the end, Jones had so much material that it would be possible to make another entire documentary about Mo’Wax without using a single frame used in his film – “It would be the remix,” he jokes.
At the core of The Man from Mo’Wax is Lavelle’s constant efforts to create great art, while always living in the shadow of the rampant success of his youth. “It doesn’t matter if you are Michael Jackson or Elton John, people are always comparing you to your past work, which they say is better, and I wanted to explore that tension and what it’s like to live with,” says Jones.
Two decades since the release of Psyence Fiction is a fitting moment for The Man from Mo’Wax to be released, and Jones admits it’s no accident. He hopes that people will rediscover the music of Mo’Wax, giving it a second life with a new audience.
Does he think that the documentary might make people re-evaluate Lavelle’s importance? “James was a pioneer,” he says. “Put it this way, if you think Martin Scorsese is an artist, then you have to think James is an artist because they do the same things. Scorsese doesn’t edit the film or write the script, act, score the music, and doesn’t always hold the camera, just like James doesn’t scratch the record, isn’t the editor, doesn’t do the graphic design on the album. But he’s across all of those things. He’s an artist.”