Julien Temple closes out his triptych of groundbreaking British musicians with a rugged piece of pulp entertainment.
After the Sex Pistols (The Filth and the Fury) and Joe Strummer (The Future is Unwritten), Julien Temple closes out his triptych of groundbreaking British musicians with a rugged piece of pulp entertainment charting the unlikely rise of UK blues outfit Dr Feelgood.
Emerging from a toxic brew of refinery fumes, isolation and rebellion, Dr Feelgood re-imagined the bleak mudflats of the Essex peninsula as a Thames Delta, a twin-town to Mississippi, one alive with the same kind of creative energy.
Inspired by the likes of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, they laid waste to the prog-rock pretension that was suffocating British music in the early '70s. But in influencing the likes of Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone, the band planted the seeds of a punk revolution that would ultimately undermine it.
Temple tells their story with his usual razzle-dazzle, employing deft in-camera effects to recreate the high wire energy of the band’s live performances. Described by Temple himself as ‘100 per cent pure Canvey Island noir’, he envisions Dr Feelgood as cultural gangsters staging a smash-and-grab on UK music. To this end, the film is smartly intercut with material from the likes of Brighton Rock and The Great Train Robbery. It’s a bit cute, but it works.
And yet the real pleasure is to be found in the band members themselves. Lead singer Lee Brilleaux is interviewed in archive footage, while drummer John Martin (aka The Big Figure) and bassist John ‘Sparko’ Sparkes provide the droll commentary of men long-used to standing in the background. And with good reason, because the band’s totem, and the film’s focal point, is guitarist-slash-acid casualty Wilko Johnson.
Johnson is a magnetic character, a herky-jerky personality of tics and twitches, whether scanning the heavens in his rooftop observatory (looking for the rescue ships) or skittering across stage, bug-eyed and jittery. Johnson followed the psychedelic songlines of the early '70s, from Canvey Island to India via the rainbow road of LSD. Returning home, it was his charisma and song writing that gave the band its edge, but it was also the paranoia induced by his drug taking that would scuttle them on the brink of greatness.
So yet another story of a band that had it all and threw it away? Yes, but it’s more than that, too. It’s a story about what it means to be rooted, to have a sense of the past and connection to a place even as the world opens out in front of you. With its chip shops and amusements, empty arcades and broken attractions, Canvey Island is the band’s founder member.
Where most bands dream of escape, Dr Feelgood always returned home. It was a place that damned and defined them, and Oil City Confidential is both haunted and ennobled by its ghosts.
Temple is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, but non-music fans might be wary.
A worthy addition to Temple’s docs on the Pistols and Strummer.
Where does Temple go from here?