Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Oil City Confidential

Julien Temple - Oil City Confidential
released 26 July 2010 on Cadiz

Whilst watching Julien Temple’s biopic of pub-rock torchbearers Dr. Feelgood, one question keeps returning to the front of my mind: why aren’t Dr. Feelgood universally adored? At their zenith, the Feelgoods were a huge live draw on both sides of the Atlantic, scored a number one album, and were a major influence on the burgeoning punk scene. Yet they appear to have been airbrushed from history. How was this allowed to happen?

Oil City Confidential is a riveting documentary, at its most absorbing when analysing the fractious relationship between guitarist and principal songwriter (Wilko Johnson) and lead singer (Lee Brilleaux) in the glory years. Two remarkably different characters with a tempestuous inter-dependency, it’s extremely sad that the opportunity for both to tell their side of things has gone forever, with Brilleaux's passing away in 1994. It appears that the Feelgoods succumbed to the all-too-frequent tale of substance abuse - alcohol for Brilleaux and the rhythm section, harder stuff for Johnson - leading to Johnson leaving the band, the exact reason for which appears to have been lost in the mists of time.

If he weren’t already real, you couldn’t make Wilko Johnson up. He’s endlessly fascinating, speaks in a nasal, Estuary drawl, and has enough energy stored inside him to power a small village. His eyes dart as if constantly on the lookout for new points of interest, and the limited live footage of Dr. Feelgood is simply captivating: Brilleaux in his dirty white suit roaring with such ferocity you think he’s seconds away from an aneurysm, while Johnson bobs and weaves his way around the stage like a strutting rooster, his penetrating eyes focused on the middle-distance.

The story of the rise and fall of Dr. Feelgood is a spellbinding one, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be sufficient for director Julien Temple. Infuriatingly, he looks to “enhance” the interviews by splicing in scenes from old black and white films, sometimes with only the most tenuous connection to what’s being said. It occasionally threatens to spoil the film, and it’s lucky for Temple that the material he’s working with is so strong.

As well as the tales told, the music is also a revelation. Dr. Feelgood played an intoxicating brand of no-nonsense rhythm and blues; raw, gruff, sweaty and incredibly appealing. There’s no explanation for the original question posed, but, as a deserved postscript, Oil City Confidential has led to a renewed interest in Dr. Feelgood. Perhaps the world just needed a little reminder, and Oil City Confidential has provided.


Anonymous said...

Correction: . You state that Lee Brilleaux was the principal songwriter which is incorrect. Wilko Johnson was the guitarist AND principal songwriter.

I agree though, why aren't Dr Feelgood universally adored?

Joe Rivers said...

You're completely right. It's been pointed out to me before but I hadn't got round to changing it, so thanks for the reminder!