Music in the movies: Oil City Confidential

Glen immerses himself in the world of Dr Feelgood, courtesy of Oil City Confidential...

Having covered Blur’s No Distance Left To Run a few weeks ago, here’s another great example of the BBC’s current trend of showing quality music programming with the recent airing of Julien Temple’s Dr. Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential.

Prior to watching this I had very little exposure to Dr. Feelgood, as they were a bit before my time and hadn’t received the kind of cultural renaissance that many of their contemporaries have received over the years.

My interest in this documentary was down to the unanimous positive reviews it received, perhaps most notably from Mark Kermode. It was also recommended in the comments section of the Top 10 music documentaries piece, and I am intending to take a look at each of the recommendations, individually, over the course of the year.

Oil City Confidential charts the career of Dr. Feelgood from their modest beginnings as a junk band from Canvey Island to a highly successful and acclaimed blues band. The band’s sound was driven by Wilko Johnson, who imagined Canvey Island to be the equivalent of the Mississippi Delta, so the heavy blues influence was inevitable.

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The band’s line up was completed by Lee Brilleaux, John B Sparks and The Big Figure and, although all of the members of the band that were still alive when the documentary was made come across well, it’s Wilko Johnson who’s the star of the show. He’s a charismatic and engaging interview subject who talks openly about the band from its formation through to his departure as a result of personal problems.

He seems to find it impossible to stay still when being interviewed and, as such, he is incredibly expressive whilst talking. With him being so expressive and exaggerated in his movements off stage, it’s easy to see why his stage persona was the way it was, with him staring into the middle distance, scuttling across the stage throwing all manner of shapes.

There’s also wonderful footage over the closing credits where Johnson demonstrates a piece of software that simulates space travel whilst talking wistfully about it.

It’s not just the interview material with the band and their family that provides insights into the band at the time. There’s interviews with Richard Hell, Glen Matlock and stock footage of Joe Strummer, which goes some way to show the influence the band had.

My lack of previous exposure to the band meant that I had no idea of the level of fame and success that they experienced. I found it particularly interesting hearing of the bands that checked out Dr. Feelgood and were influenced by them over the years. The Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer and a number of people who would eventually go on to form some of the most successful bands of the 70s New York punk scene all drew inspiration from this band with modest beginnings.

There’s footage from a New York gig where The Ramonesopened for Dr. Feelgood and, given the quality of both of the acts and the fact that they both had a reputation for being great live bands, you can imagine that being a gig those in attendance would have remembered for the rest of their lives.

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Anyone who has experienced music biographies or documentaries in the past won’t find the journey the band took from modest beginnings to their relationships being destroyed as they achieved success surprising, as it’s the same for the vast majority of pieces like this. However, the way in which this documentary has been lovingly constructed by Temple is what makes it such a great watch.

Seeing band members being interviewed as archive footage of their concerts are being projected onto the Canvey Island oil drums in the background, is a great image and it’s something that is used throughout.

The use of stock footage from old movies to portray the feelings and emotions of the band at the time is also very effective. What starts of exciting soon becomes sombre as the foundations of the band start to erode.

Julien Temple has made some excellent music documentaries over the years, most notably his two documentaries on The Sex Pistols and his excellent documentary on Joe Strummer. Oil City Confidential more than holds its own against his other work and it could be argued that it’s Temple’s best work to date.

I was familiar with the subjects of Temple’s previous documentaries prior to watching them so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy them.

As a newcomer to Dr. Feelgood, I found this to be a fascinating watch and I am now compelled to check out their back catalogue. For anyone who grew up as a fan of the band, I can imagine this being quite an emotional experience. They’re presented in a good light and come across very well as subjects of a documentary.

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The band might not have been the most original, but that becomes immaterial when you see footage of how great a live band they were. Likewise, this documentary may not be showing you anything new in terms of the narrative arc of the subject, but that hardly matters when the subjects are as interesting and engaging as they are here.

Sadly, by the time this piece goes live, it will no longer be available on iPlayer, but a DVD release shouldn’t be too far off.

Those familiar with the band will have probably checked this out by now, but for those, like me, who before this weren’t that familiar with Dr. Feelgood, I really can’t recommend this documentary enough.

Here’s the trailer for the film: