Thursday, March 24, 2016

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential: The Story of Dr. Feelgood

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Oil City Confidential
Directed by Julien Temple
Cadiz Music
106 minutes, 2009 / 2013

While Julien Temple has made his share of shlocky films, such as Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), he will hopefully be remembered more for his music-related documentaries, starting with the infamous The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980), The Filth and the Fury (2000) – both about the Sex Pistols – and Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007). He’s also done quite a few music videos, including as Dexys Midnight Runners' “C’mon Eileen” and Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On,” both of which have become cultural icons.

His focus here is on the British proto-punk band, Dr. Feelgood. Every nascent local music scene has its band that came just before that isn’t quite what the zeitgeist would represent, but would have an influence on it. What’s more, unlike, say, the New York Dolls, the New York version that had a more widespread footprint, other areas had bands that were more subtle in the greater history, but were still quite important. For example, Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band in Boston may have a couple of albums on a major label out and put out some really great music, and I feel honored to have seen him play on his home turf more than once, but odds are many don’t know how much of the Rat(skeller) crowd owes to it. In Australia, the same can be said for Rose Tattoo, for example. Or [fill in the blank for your area] _________________.

As with the Dolls being somewhat glam-yet-so-much-more, Dr. Feelgood similarly aligned with the British pub rock movement in the early-to-mid-1970s, but was pushing the limits of what bands like Duck Deluxe were bringing to the table, with guitarist / loony (meant complementary) Wilko Johnson being the centrifuge catalyst of their energy that went beyond what was common in the pre-punk scene. Much like Johnny Thunders, his erratic style came to symbolize the early punk scene across The Pond.

One aspect of the between bands is that they are highly influenced by what has gone on before – in Dr. Feelgood’s case it was Blues rock – but are still different than what was to come. Sometimes connecting the dots between, say, Blues-based the Yardbirds, and the Sex Pistols, but it’s there, in the frenetic playing of Wilko, the “rock-solid” (as he’s referred here) vocalist Lee Brilleaux who is more stationary, but equally as intense in performance, and the steady rhythm section of Sparko on bass and The Big Figure on drums. It is similar to how, in the States, it’s somewhat hard to see how the Flamin’ Groovies bridged the San Francisco melodic pop rock sound and the Ramones, but again, there is no doubt that it’s there.

Even now – well, as of 2009 when this film was created, anyway – Wilko is quite the character with a shaven head, twitching voice and body, and a smile that can either charm or terrorize, which is the reason he was cast as an executioner in The Game of Thrones series. Even though the whole band comes from Canvey Island in England, where oil refineries line the waterfront (hence the title of the film), his accent seems fick-ah than the others. Personally, I would have loved to have had a captions capability.

Temple has a really good sense of what makes a documentary work, which is why I like this genre of his work rather than his weaker, fiction-based films. We meet the band, who are interviewed in numerous locations on the Island, in varied groups (i.e., together and by themselves), and mixed with early footage of the band from childhood through onstage (both stills and in action) and beyond, historical records (again, both pictures and film), and clips from British films (mostly of the gangster genre). There are the odd interviews with locals, friends, family and other musicians (e.g., Jools Holland, Alison Moyet and even Joe Strummer [d. 2002], who was influenced to start the 101ers after seeing them, just as seeing the Pistols would convince him to leave the 101ers). This all keeps the action going as the images flit from one thing to the next, rather than just be a series of talking heads mixed with band shots, or endless interviews by fans and musicians – or worse, music historians giving second-hand stories.

For example, while on tour in the US, with the Ramones opening for Dr. Feelgood at the Bottom Line, a lot of the CBGBs luminaries were present, having been introduced to the band via their second LP (Malpractice) by Blondie drummer Clem Burke, who is represented with interviews a few times (once in Manitoba’s?), as well as the likes of Roberta Bayley and Richard Hell. What is really nice is other than the band, all the “guest” interviews are incredibly brief.

Though formed in 1971, fame came in 1975 when their first album, Down in the Jetty was released, and they had some tremendous hits in the UK, though kind of lightweight sales in the States. And after a few albums, of course, with two alpha males in the limelight, things got shaky and Wilko left the band. Between creative differences and personalities, it seems kind of obvious to me that something had to happen because, on a cosmic level, Wilko liked some of the softer drugs like speed and coke, while the rest of the band were hard drinkers. That kind of stuff never seems to mix well; a couple of years later, Sparko and the Big Figure left as well.

On a positive note, it’s pretty obvious (to me, anyway) from this film that the three remaining members of Dr. Feelgood are still friends, and reunite once in a while on their home turf and play gigs with guest vocalists. If Brilleaux hadn’t died of cancer in 1994, who knows if he would still be appearing with them on the film.

The hour or so extras include a 48-minute interview with Lee Brilleaux, sitting in a pub and telling a history of the band, and 21 minutes of outtakes of mostly Wilko, but also the likes of Jools. Also included with the DVD is a really nice and thick color (or should I say colour) booklet with pictures and articles including a written commentary by the director, a Canvey Island postcard, and a color advert for Oil City Confidential merchandise (e.g., the band’s CDs and tees).

This documentary has won some prestigious honors, such as Best Documentary at the Kermode Awards (2011), MOJO’s Vision Award for best film in 2010, and Best International Film (Cult Award) at the Turin Film Festival. The band was definitely an influence to a number of scenes, and their place in the modern chronology as a “link” between rock and punk is undeniable here. Temple’s way with film only adds to the legend of the band. For me, eventually, the old gangster film clips became a bit tedious, but luckily watching Dr. Feelgood perform, plus with their anecdotes, made this an enjoyable and important watch for music historians interested in a source (among many) of where punk originated.

Bonus video unrelated to documentary:


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