Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rock On Film 16: Oil City Confidential

For a while I'd hear a new TISM song and wonder when they were going to twig that sending up disco didn't even have a retro effect. At some point prompted by a friend's suggestion, I started realising that that had just become their style and I should just live with it. Similarly, when a new Julien Temple music documentary appears and the a/v mashups start I no longer think, "oh, again?" but, "oh, new Julien Temple movie". The other trait he's been using is to weave a setting in throughout the story to give it place or mood.

In Filth and the Fury that was the gluggy 70s tv ads and youth shows as well as the backlit interview subjects whose visible aging would not distract from their testimony. In The Future is Unwritten Joe Strummer's friends and colleagues traded tales around the kind of campfires Stummer was promoting as a kind of cultural folk remedy. In this film about pub rockers Dr Feelgood we follow a guided stroll around Canvey Island where the band grew up and met. And weaving through that is a series of AV bites from British post-war noir, including some newly created by Temple. Julien loves his music and his friends and when his friends make music loved by millions he builds a richly textured record of it to stand against the weather of time.

Time and its erosion bothered him so much in Filth that he presented his main players in silhouette. Not so here where the surviving players seem so happy to continue living decades past the fade of their fame. Chief among them is guitarist Wilco Johnson whose current baldness provides a helpful temporal ruler against the many images of the luxuriant dark mop of his youth. There is no Vegas plastic surgery nor Hollywood hairpiece in this unashamed ex rock star. His glottal stop speech sounds as vital quoting Wordsworth as it does recounting infamies from a U.S. tour. He speaks to us directly from his home or a pub or sings outside the local pokie joint with his Fender Tele plugged straight into what looks like an old tweed Bassman. Not a moment of this drags and his live to camera al fresco renditions of standards like John Hardy feel as comfortable as they would played in the Delta by an old bluesman. Temple and his subjects avoid self-embarrassment.

Is this damning with faint praise? Almost. I remember Dr. Feelgood from the 70s but only slightly. For me they were completely eclipsed by punk which emerged soon after they did and for me they were one of the acts that never quite convinced when they were put into the same sentence as The Clash or The Damned. What Dr. Feelgood played was what used to be called R&B. Their's was a freshly aggressive guitar and growled vocals approach but it was also being called pub rock which term I had no trouble imagining as the pubs around Townsville rang with ginger-froed hippies playing flavourless versions of Mustang Sally. By comparision Dr. Feelgood rebooted the genre and sounded leaner and meaner and looked a lot better.

Wilco on stage had the weirdest look I've ever seen in a rock guitarist. Under a mop that seems too big for him he stares out like a psyche patient and glides back and forth. One witness of the early shows describes him as being on rails and that's exactly what it looks like. The fluidity of the motion and the magnetism of his stare provide a kind of sleight of hand that keeps our eyes away from how he's moving like that. Lee Brilleaux (Frenched up spelling of Brillo, as in the cleaning pads) hulks centre, unmoving growling out to Roxette in the dark. There's a Riot in Cell Block Number Nine? Wilco plays his machine gun riff holding his Tele like an Armalite. No light show and only the vaguest concession to costumes. This was music played as hard as its English winter garden bed and crawled up out of the concreted earth among the refinery silos like worms and oil.

That's what makes this a good music documentary. That's what brings it to the same high shelf as the London of Filth and the Fury and the spare Texan spaces of The Real Buddy Holly Story or the Melbourne of Autoluminescent: PLACE! We're as weary as the wanderers in the walking tour of Canvey Island at the end when they finally get to their pub but happy to sip and watch Wilco's last few words from in front of the silos. By that stage I don't care if I don't like the music. I've been somewhere. I've met someone.

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