Having made his last two documentaries on The Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer, Julian Temple completes his trilogy on 70’s music, with a beautifully inventive look at British pub rock band Dr Feelgood. A band who burst onto the British music scene in the middle of 70’s, with their high-energy take on the Blues and R&B. Overlooked by music history for many years, Temple’s film takes up the challenge of telling the story of the band from Canvey Island and details how they paved the way for the music explosion that was to take place towards the end of the decade.
Oil City Confidential tracks Feelgood’s rise from the Thames Delta (or Canvey Island as we know it), where the members started their music careers in retro style jug bands, to the rock & roll sensation they became in the late 70’s. Fueled on by energetic guitarist Wilko Johnson and charismatic lead-singer Lee Brilleaux, the band reached their pinnacle in 1976 with chart-topping album Stupidity. However, after a rise always comes a fall and when Wilko left the band a year later, their popularity soon dwindled and Feelgood mania was over.
Temple’s film is anything but just another music biography though, it’s an unusually constructed documentary where archive fiction film footage, stunning photography of Canvey Island and beautifully composed interviews, all melt into an frantic, hypnotic commentary on all things Feelgood. Although a film about a band and its four members, there seems to be two stand-out stars of Oil City Confidential; Wilko Johnson and Canvey Island. Temple appears to use Wilko (described by the director as “one of the great English eccentrics”) as frenzied narrator for the film, placing him in cinematic locations around Canvey Islands, he works the camera almost like a trained actor. Whether peering down the lens in extreme close-up or strutting across the widescreen frame, there’s no doubt the wild-eyed guitarist loves to be the centre of attention and even though he’s in a good 75% of the film, you still wish there was more Wilko. His other star, Canvey Island, has a bit of a reputation for being a dump and having some weird inhabitants (even Wilko admits people born there, below sea-level, have a ‘Submarine’ consciousness), yet through cinematographer Stephen Organ’s resourceful vision, Oil City Confidential paints it as an attractive place to visit. Creating a vision of England’s own version of the Blues ridden Mississippi Delta, Organ’s camera dwells on caravan parks, seascapes and power stations to support this vision, this really is the coastal town, that they forgot to close down.
If I was being a little harsh (which I usually am), I would have to say Temple’s latest, at 104 minutes is slightly overweight and could do with losing a bit of its bulk. Another slight grumble was at times, the director also over-egged his use of archive fiction film footage and although funny, it often felt lazy and unneeded, especially with such beautiful cinematography. Despite these slightest of complaints, Oil City Confidential is still not only the most aesthetically pleasing doc I’ve seen since Zoo, but also one of the most exhilarating documentary’s I’ve seen all year. Made even more enjoyable by the fact my girlfriend thought I was taking her to see a documentary about the Oil trade!