Having covered the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer in glorious detail in two previous pics, Brit helmer Julien Temple turns his attentions to Brit rockers Dr. Feelgood in “Oil City Confidential,” a biodoc that’s all the more fascinating given how little-known its subjects’ story is outside music-geek circles. Along the way, Temple sketches a compelling portrait of intersecting times, cultures and places that adds heft to the main story. The only fly in “Oil’s” ointment is that Feelgood’s music was hardly in the same league as the Pistols’ or Strummer’s, which could hinder the pic’s commercial potential.
Dr. Feelgood was a quartet of working-class lads whose rough-edged and raucous R&B sound drew a cult following on Blighty’s pub rock circuit in the early 1970s. The four were loved more for their electric onstage chemistry than for their adequate to merely good songwriting, and their manic, drug-fueled energy, defiance of then-current musical trends, and literal and figurative dirtiness are what make them look in retrospect like proto-punks. Interviews with Sex Pistols member Glen Matlock, Gotham punk eminence grise Richard Hell and Strummer, among others, all testify here to Feelgood’s direct influence on their subsequent music.
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The original members of Dr. Feelgood — lead singer Lee Brilleaux (who died of cancer in 1994 and is seen in archival footage), lead/rhythm guitarist Wilko Johnson, drummer John Martin, and bassist John B. Sparkes — mostly tell their story themselves through a mixture of old and newly shot material. Elsewhere, jokey animations and newsreel footage fill in the gaps.
Temple places so much emphasis on the formative influence of the band’s hometown, Canvey Island in Essex — the Oil City of the title (so named because of the massive oil refinery in nearby Shellhaven) — that it takes a good 15 minutes of screen time before anyone mentions picking up a guitar. As it happens, the sociological musings of various interviewees, particularly the garrulous Johnson, are fascinating, as is the consistent effort to place the band in a wider context of what was going on politically, socially and musically in the 70s.
This broader perspective is all the more welcome given that Feelgood’s music hasn’t aged well, although the archival footage gets across the appeal of their energetic stage antics and the rapport they enjoyed with their loyal followers. There’s also no getting around the fact that this story isn’t much different from thousands of other real-life band narratives — from the desperate scramble to first get noticed, through the glory years of groupies and relentless touring (and these guys were always on the road), to the inevitable falling out over creative direction, jealousies and substance-induced paranoia.
As with his previous musical docs ( “The Filth and the Fury,” “Glastonbury,” “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten”), Temple attacks the material with almost exhausting verve, crosscutting so that dialogue overlaps, splicing in clips from vintage pics for ironic counterpoint and generally injecting the proceedings with an appropriately frenetic energy, ably assisted by editor Caroline Richards. Stylized lensing by Stephen Organ adds flavor without being too intrusive.
At the screening caught, producer Stephen Malit said the release print on celluloid will run shorter than the 112 minutes it spanned when shown digitally projected at the London fest.