In the music industry, an A&R person works to discover and sign new artists to a record label. Once signed, they help to oversee albums, securing producers and special guests to help make the project a success.
In this debut documentary from director Matthew Jones, he chronicles the career of producer, musician and label owner James Lavelle, who grew up obsessed with music. He started collecting records at a young age and started DJ’ing at 14, long before he was even old enough to be inside of a pub. Still a teenager, he left his family in favor of the big city life, working at Honest Jon’s Records in London and starting a column in “Straight No Chaser” magazine, tipping people off to the latest and greatest sounds from around the world. This column progressed into Lavelle forming the Mo’Wax label in 1992.
At this point, Lavelle wasn’t even 20 and his label was already building a strong identity. Combining electronic music, hip-hop artists and dance culture, Mo’Wax was releasing records from artists like Attica Blues, Blackalicious and DJ Krush. The 1996 release of DJ Shadow’s debut album “Endtroducing…” changed everything and ushered in an era where Mo’Wax earned an infusion of cash by becoming a major label imprint.
By this point, Lavelle had basically invented a new genre — “trip-hop” — and his friendship with DJ Shadow resulted in the pioneering U.N.K.L.E. collaboration “Psyence Fiction.” The 1998 album featured guest vocals from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Mike D from the Beastie Boys, Richard Ashcroft of The Verve and Metallica’s Jason Newsted. Watching the footage from this time period is utterly fascinating, as Jones had access to previously unseen footage from DJ Shadow and Lavelle’s personal archives.
Shows like “Behind The Music” have taught us over the years that a huge success can result in a very hard fall. Ego gets in the way, circles of friends are expanded (or tightened) and, often, bridges are burned. Lavelle’s passion for music didn’t always make up for his lack of business acumen. By the time DJ Shadow cut his losses and left the U.N.K.L.E. project, it wasn’t just the end of a friendship, it was the end of an era.
This pretty much takes us through the first half of “Artist & Repertoire,” and then we sink into the abyss of Lavelle trying to catch that lightning in a bottle again and again to diminishing returns. In fact, we see first-hand how history repeated itself, switching out collaborators until they couldn’t deal with working with him any longer. Rapidly losing money and destroying the creative process (and myriad relationships), but not seeing that until it’s too late
The film drags a bit during the period, mostly because you identify with the people who’d rather not be around Lavelle. He made a complete and utter mess of his life and business dealings, but then we start to head into a redemption story for the film’s last act, and it all comes back around to remind you of Lavelle’s charm and, ultimately, his talent. Asking for forgiveness is never easy, and Jones doesn’t shy away from interviewing people who aren’t sure if they can overlook their dealings with the label and the man himself.
“Artist & Repertoire” stands as a cautionary tale and should be required viewing for artists getting started in the music business. It offers many prime examples of how not to treat people when you’re on the come-up and some hard lessons for how to handle your mistakes.
Other screenings: 11 a.m. Tuesday, Topfer Theatre at ZACH; 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Alamo South Lamar