13 Oct 2016

Supersonic and the documentaries of Britpop

From Widescreen, 12:57 pm on 13 October 2016

Oasis: Supersonic is mainly for fans but if you’re interested in the Britpop era Dan Slevin says there are plenty of other documentaries about the period.

The Gallagher brothers getting on famously in the documentary Oasis: Supersonic

The Gallagher brothers getting on famously in the documentary Oasis: Supersonic Photo: Madman

1995 – what a time to be alive! Or, to be alive and British at any rate.

After long years while long-haired drug addicts from the Pacific North-West dominated popular music, the United Kingdom reasserted itself as the naturally superior force with seminal releases by Pulp (Different Class), Blur (The Great Escape), Supergrass (I Should Coco) and, um, Take That. Bigger than all of them, though, was the second album by Oasis, What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, a rollicking, hook-laden, brash, loud, rock masterpiece which confirmed the Gallagher brothers (Liam and Noel) as the natural heirs to British North-West music superstardom – Manchester rather than Merseyside in this case.

21 years later, the Oasis story is told on the big screen in Oasis: Supersonic, a documentary as noisy, vulgar and frustrating as the band itself. The Gallagher relationship has soured to such a degree that they can’t share a room with each other which makes the typical ‘talking head’ approach to reminiscence difficult. The filmmakers, director Mat Whitecross and many of the production team behind the Academy Award winning Amy, get around this by using the same formula that helped make that film a success – copious amounts of contemporary footage (much of it behind-the-scenes and home video) overlaid with voiceover remembrances from the participants.

The problem with this approach on Supersonic is that the two brothers – and almost everybody else – sound very alike, making it hard for the first 40 minutes or so to tell them apart which hampers the storytelling somewhat. The film seems to be geared much more toward fans rather than a general audience. Many assumptions are made about how much we’ll know about the cultural and musical context of the time and it’s that approach to the music that is the other major flaw in the film – and many others of its ilk. It never really manages to tell you anything about how the music came to be.

There are diversions into studio hijinks and general drug and alcohol-fuelled japery but we don’t get much insight into the band creatively – they come across as not much more than a bunch of dysfunctional relationships packed into a tour bus.

Supersonic is only so-so, sadly, but luckily for people interested in the era, there are several other good documentaries that – taken together – paint a picture of a fascinating period in Western cultural history, the final decade of the 20th Century.

First up – and the best broad telling of the story – is Live Forever, a 2003 BBC documentary that also played on cinema screens here in NZ. While it focuses on the bitter rivalry between southern Blur and northern Oasis, the film manages to tell the story of the whole Britpop scene and features interviews and archive performances from Elastica, Pulp, Sleeper and Massive Attack as well as contributions from globally successful British artists of the period like Damien Hirst.

Also by the BBC and also released to cinemas here in 2011 was Upside Down: The Creation Records story about Oasis’s label and its founder/owner/guru Alan McGee. McGee only features briefly but memorably in Supersonic as he decides to sign the band after watching them for only half an hour at an early gig but the film about Creation reminds us how influential a taste-maker he was (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, The House of Love, Teenage Fanclub) even while his personal life was coming to pieces. In my review at the time, I described it as “a doco in which middle-aged men reminisce about times that they can barely remember because they were so out of it” but that seems a little harsh now with hindsight.

There are a couple of films about bands of the era getting back together, either for commerce, nostalgia or just because they miss each other. Blur’s No Distance Left to Run (2010) is as workmanlike as the band themselves – I’ve never really warmed to them – and comes second to the Stone Roses reunion film, Made of Stone (2013), mainly because the latter is made by great filmmaker and deathless Roses fan Shane Meadows. Ultimately though, the Stone Roses aren’t much more than a footnote to this story.

The best film of the lot was made by Kiwi director Florian Habicht, on a commission from front man Jarvis Cocker. Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets is as delightfully idiosyncratic as its subject. Habicht chooses to tell a story about more than just the band because a band is more than just its members or its songs. It’s the fans, the city – Sheffield – that spawned them, the landscape. Habicht gets under the skin of Pulp in ways the other films are barely aware is possible.

Of course, we celebrate the 90s as the heyday of post-Beatles British pop but the sad fact is that What’s the Story… was only number one in Britain for a week while part-time pop stars and TV actors Robson & Jerome’s self-titled CD of easy-going cover versions topped the charts for six. Not quite the golden age that we remember then.

Oasis: Supersonic is in select cinemas now. 

More on Supersonic

Sarah McMullan reviews the film for Nine to Noon:

Trailer:

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