Friday, December 24, 2010
Julien Temple - Oil City Confidential (2009)
Director Julien Temple's film celebrates Canvey Island's Dr Feelgood, the Essex R 'n' B band that exploded out of the UK in the prog era of the early Seventies, delivering shows and albums that helped pave the way for pub rock and punk.
Temple examines Canvey Island culture as a 'Thames delta' for British rhythm and blues, with a central performance from the Feelgood's guitarist and songwriter Wilko Johnson. A British original, his dynamic stage presence and relationship with lead singer Lee Brilleaux drove the band through their early performances, characterising their three albums between 1975 and 1976, Down by the Jetty, Malpractice and the number one live album, Stupidity.
Wilko left the band in 1977, bassist John B Sparks and drummer The Big Figure both left in 1982, and Lee Brilleaux died in 1994. This is an imaginative, filmic and moving study of the place, times and characters that created the heyday of a seminal British band, and the personal forces that pulled them apart.
Oil City Confidential - The Guardian
Julien Temple's film about 70s pub rockers Dr Feelgood is his best rockumentary yet says Peter Bradshaw
Julien Temple has made many movies about music – about the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer and Glastonbury. But I don't think he's ever made a film as good, and purely insightful as this one, about the cult Canvey Island R&B band Dr Feelgood, who had their heyday of fame in the mid-70s pub-rock era that foreshadowed punk, before the band fell victim to infighting and a sad early end. The Feelgoods' reputation is not as weighty or towering as all those other music stars, and I think this has allowed Temple to relax and give us both an engaging film and a resonant psychogeography of Canvey Island and Essex itself. Like Will Self and the Isle of Grain in Kent, Temple finds himself responding to this striking and remote landscape, a little like the Cambridgeshire fen, but much racier, and a little like Brighton, but somehow more unworldly, melancholy and even spiritual.
In their glory days, Dr Feelgood punched out a blistering live set of rhythm and blues to a dedicated audience, with deafening harmonica and vocals from lead singer Lee Brilleaux and manic strutting lead guitar work from Wilko Johnson. With tongue only slightly in cheek, Temple suggests that this pugnaciously English account of the blues – and Essex is quintessentially English – could only have come from what the band called the "Thames delta".
The most likeable thing about this very likable film is the way it promotes Wilko Johnson as a 100-1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman. Before he became a flawed guitar hero, Johnson was a romantic, progressive thinker who journeyed across Asia on the classic hippy trail; he was a student of English literature at Newcastle University and then a schoolteacher, who was begged by his besotted female students to take part in some sort of softcore spanking film. He prudently declined, but nonetheless sportingly posed for some still photos with gown, mortarboard and cane. Temple shows us some TV footage in which the young, long-haired Johnson was in the audience for a local TV version of Question Time. He stood up and haranged the smug politicians on stage for allowing oil companies to despoil his beloved Canvey Island: a heroic performance.
Johnson himself now looks older, but his strange energy and subversive charisma still come across. There aren't many pub-rock legends who can quote William Langland's medieval poem Piers the Plowman.
It would be nice if Oil City Confidential could be shown in a double-bill with Dom Shaw's film All the Years of Trying, his study of New Wave poet Patrik Fitzgerald, another Madeleine of a name. Oil City Confidential is a vivid study of period, music and place. I certainly felt good.