fri 20/09/2019

Oil City Confidential | reviews, news & interviews

Oil City Confidential

Oil City Confidential

Julien Temple produces a genuine feel-good movie

Dr. Feelgood was the first band I ever saw live, and I can still remember that frisson of expectation queuing up outside the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1975. I didn’t even know who they were or what they sounded like, I simply had some pals who were soon-to-be-punks who’d got wind of the fact that these Canvey Island ne’er-do-wells were the harbingers of something new, something borrowed, and something blue. But the blues were only the starting point for "Feelgood" as we, necessarily, truncated their name.

By the summer of 1976, Feelgood had become the best live band in the land. But by the spring of 1977 their extraordinary guitarist, Wilko Johnson, had left and it was all over, at least as far as the band having any artistic significance is concerned. Yet now there’s a whole, proper, widescreen movie devoted to a group who – on an international level – never even registered on the radar. So what’s going on? Why Feelgood?

Sitting in the cosy darkness of the National Film Theatre, I’m once again watching Wilko firing off deadly splinters of distorted chords from his red and black Telecaster while zigzagging across the stage, part Chuck Berry and part proto-moonwalker, such was the way he seemed to defy any normal laws of human physical movement. And then there’s his wired and grimy sidekick, vocalist Lee Brilleaux. It’s said that Life on Mars’s Gene Hunt was based on Jack Regan of The Sweeney, but surely Brilleaux would have made a far more convincing source for the fictional 1970s cop. With his bottled-up anger, thug’s sideburns, and off-white suit that had obviously been a white suit in a previous life, Brilleaux looked every inch the corrupt copper. The way he stood, legs taut and wide apart, ringing the neck of his microphone rather than the neck of a petrified suspect, seemed thrillingly dangerous to my 17-year-old self. These geezers meant it, and the rapport between them was just so cinematic.

So perhaps I’ve just answered my own question: This band was cinematic. There’s not much live footage of the Wilko years but what there is shows they were fully aware of the need to project a powerful visual image on the widescreen of a rock venue’s stage. Which brings us to director Julien Temple who was clearly the only man qualified to resurrect their fiery spirit and bring them to the attention of a new generation of music fans. Over the past thirty years Temple has shown himself to be a much better documentary-maker than features director. He’s particularly adept at piecing together elaborate mosaics of old footage, contemporary interviews, and quirky tangential interludes, such as he did with one of his best films to date, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. And, at least superficially Oil City Confidential follows the same template.

But this is a far more intimate and humorous film than the perhaps over-sanctimonious Strummer picture. Temple once again keeps our eyes and brains alert with a constant flow of imagery; grainy old movie clips, family photos, and faux-naif stop-motion animation episodes – anything to illustrate or comment amusingly on the story of the band as told by friends, fellow musicians and the band themselves. It’s the same band story you’ve heard a hundred times before, of egos clashing, musical and drug-of-choice differences, and rifts left too late to repair. But luckily the present-day Wilko Johnson is as compelling a presence as his nineteen-seventies ghost, and so Temple is smart enough to allow his unstoppable, fragmentary monologues to function as the human heart of the film, preventing it from exploding into a thousand disparate pieces.

The other element that lends the whole project a curious gravitas is the contemporary footage of the band’s birthplace, Canvey Island. Temple drains these shots of most of their colour and thus makes this flat, bleak place, dotted with gruesome holiday bungalows, belching factory chimneys and neglected fairground equipment, a strange otherworldly beauty and therefore makes it more credible that Wilko should have written some of his best lyrics about what he wryly calls the Thames Delta.

The only flaw this touching, funny and exhilarating film has isn’t actually a fault of the film itself, which has its own internal laws to obey, it’s simply the fact that because of these laws there’s not enough live footage included. What there is just comes in sporadic 20-second lightning bolts of ear-teasing excitement, as part of Temple’s bigger picture. But if you end up wanting to hear and see more – and it’s hard to imagine that you won’t - then there’s a perfectly good no-frills concert movie called Going Back Home still available on DVD.

Temple wisely ends his film when Wilko leaves. There’s a brief mention of replacement, John Mayo, but only so as to make the point that Wilko was irreplaceable. Lee Brilleaux died in 1994 but, amazingly, there’s still a band doing the circuit called Dr. Feelgood, with none of the original musicians as members, presumably playing Dr. Feelgood songs. But that’s the 21st century for you.

Comments

Spot-on review. Just like to add that Wilko is still touring & still playing a lot of Feelgood songs. Now with Norman Watt-Roy & Dylan Howe from the Blockheads. Still an absolutely brilliant performer.

Very nice review reminds me of the fact that I saw Dr Feelgood in autumn of 73 at Surbiton Assembly Rooms, supporting Ducks Deluxe in front of about 12 people. Wilko was the only one wearing a suit - the others were all in bomber jackets - which made his performance, which was already totally formed, seem all the weirder. At a time when the whole music scene was still mired in the fag end of hippydom, you just couldn't imagine what institution these people had been let out of. It was all mildly disturbing. It was only about a year later, when they were on the way to being stars, that I realised what it was all about.

A spot-on review. I loved the film, far more than I even hoped I would. I'd agree on the 'live footage' angle too. 'Going Back Home' shows you all you need to know about the Feelgoods as a live band.

Spoton review. Just like to add that Wilko is still touring & still playing a lot of Feelgood songs. Now with Norman Watt-Roy & Dylan Howe from the Blockheads. Still an absolutely brilliant performer.

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