The Man from Mo'Wax
Directed by Matthew Jones
James Lavelle played his first DJ set at 14, launched pioneering record label Mo'Wax at 18 and released the genre defining UNKLE album Psyence Fiction at 22. His phenomenally rapid rise seemed limitless, but it's only when you're going so fast that the wheels fall off. The Man from Mo’Wax tells the remarkable story of one of the most enigmatic yet influential figures in contemporary British culture. Unearthed from over 700 hours of footage including exclusive personal archive spanning three decades, we get the rare opportunity to watch a boy become a man in the world of music. The result is an exhilarating, no holds-barred ride into the life of an extraordinary man and an equally extraordinary era, taking in some decidedly flawed decision-making (both personal and professional), Lavelle emerges as an innovative artist who thinks big and consistently overcomes adversity.
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★★★½ review by Matt Shiverdecker on Letterboxd
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★★★½ review by James on Letterboxd
Previously I saw an early edit at a film festival and rated it 2.5/5. It really dragged and had some inaccuracies such as suggesting UNKLE was DJ Shadow’s project, whereas it existed prior to him joining.
Rewatching it now it’s a lot tighter and the third act isn’t as depressing. There’s still some weird stuff where the timeline doesn’t make sense (DJ Shadow is introduced after mentioning a bunch of events from 1995, while really he had been hanging with James Lavelle since 1993 at least), but I get they edited things to tell a story.
Overall very interesting, and Josh Homme steals the show.
★★★★ review by Adam Lowes on Letterboxd
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.
Full review - cine-vue.com/2018/08/film-review-the-man-from-mowax.html
★★★★½ review by Nitrorebel on Letterboxd
Had the great fortune of watching this in the Olympic Studios, right by James Lavelle's current neighbourhood of Barnes, London, with a Q&A following the viewing between Lavelle and Charlie Dark (who features prominently in the documentary).
James Lavelle can rightly take credit for discovering and releasing some of the most groundbreaking hip-hop, trip-hop and eclectic electronic music of the '90s, including the record that I personally consider the greatest ever recorded, DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing...."
As Lavelle himself mentioned in the Q&A, 90's electronica was extremely tribal with people in their own camps and scenes (techno, house, drum n bass, etc) and labels, DJs completely "segregated" by genre. Lavelle's label Mo' Wax was one of the few that completely shattered those boundaries and simply released "good music" regardless of genre, association. Many releases defied any form of neat categorisation at all. Hip-hop, downtempo, trip-hop, jazz, funk, breakbeat, house. You could find it all and all the mash-ups between those genres.
Besides the musical, what drew many of us to Mo' Wax was the comprehensive aesthetic the label represented. Its cover arts were beautiful, many (such as UNKLE's) drawn by the NY street artist Futura, who Lavelle flew in from NYC and made the label's resident artist. In this respect he shared close ties with Ninja Tune (the other iconic genre-defying label of that time, and still today) and Bathing Ape's NIGO, who Lavelle collaborated with on many musical and visual projects.
The other aspect was the truly cosmopolitan identity of the label. Lavelle, an Oxford native, not only signed artists from South London or Manchester, but dug out Shadow from under a pile of records in the Bay Area, DJ Krush from Japan, Blackalicious from the US underground hip-hop scene, and so on. Besides those hits, the documentary also reveals the near misses of signing Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead, who all decided to sign for major labels but were very much also in Lavelle's orbit early on.
The reason for their not signing is unclear but very much also personal, which becomes a running theme of the film. Despite Lavelle's prodigious love of music and incredible knack for spotting talent across genres, his wonderful aesthetic and networking skills, he consistently falls out with almost every artist he is in contact with. At his nadir around 2009, Lavelle is completely isolated professionally and personally, following the divorce of his 2nd wife.
The rehabilitation occurs at the Southbank's Meltdown in 2013, which also showcases Shadow himself (Shadow fell out with Lavelle in 2000 after Psyence Fiction).
My GF who knew nothing about the label or the man or the artists on screen also loved the film, and is a good testament to the fact that the documentary works both for die-hard fans as well as curious outsiders.
Lavelle clearly distanced himself from the making of the film in the Q&A and did criticise the narrative arc, which does portray him in a poor light more than once. This actually strengthens the film's legitimacy as an honest perspective rather than some hagiography.
Watch it, and more importantly, listen to the great music and watch the great art that this label churned out at its heights in the 90s. Ninja Tune and Compost Records are the only 2 labels that could really compete with Mo' Wax. Despite his many failings, Lavelle knows good music like few others.
★★★★ review by Neil Fox on Letterboxd
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