Have you ever heard of the band Dr Feelgood? I hadn’t, and it turns out they were pretty big at their peak. Oil City Confidential is the story of the formation and early years. It’s also the story of their bizarre home town, Canvey Island, Essex. It was directed by Julian Temple who has built a reputation as the go to music documentarian, beginning with his Sex Pistols centric The Great Rock ’n’ Swindle in 1979. And like Swindle, I just don’t get Temple’s style of film making. But more on that later.
Canvey Island is only technically an island. A small creek you could walk across without getting your pants wet is all that separates it from the “mainland”. But as one local in the documentary says, “It’s an island, you can sail right the way around it.” Since the inhabitants really do live in a depressing, ugly, soul crushing place, I guess we can let them have their island status if it gives them even the smallest hope to cling to. Canvey Island really is the kind of “England” you imagine when thinking about its worst stereotypical features. The beach is all mud, the town sits under a towering oil refinery and it seems inhabited with people who never left, not because they love it there, but because they don’t even know it’s an option.
Canvey Island does however offer the most interesting aspects of Oil City Coinf9idential. Its proximity to London’s East End made it a popular holiday and weekend getaway spot for full blown geezers. The stories in the film’s setup, talking about the cockney, likely lads and the affiliations they brought to the island made me wish that was the subject of the documentary. Instead, this story isn’t interested in the visitors to Canvey Island, it’s interested in its most famous export, Dr Feelgood, a band of four locals trying to bring Mississippi rhythm and blues to 1970s Britain.
The majority of the talking head footage is dedicated to original Feelgoods (that’s what fans call them) guitarist and song writer, Wilko Johnson. I assume the majority of talking heads footage is dedicated to Johnson because Johnson is an insufferable show off. Poor old Julian Temple must have used so much film indulging Johnson’s mugging, extreme close up lunges to the camera, small-child-with-a-full-bladder-fidgeting and self-conscious, self-imposed weirdness, I guess there was hardly any left to shoot much with the other members of the band. Just in case I’m not being clear, Wilko Johnson is the kind of guy who thinks he’s the life of the party, but really, everyone thinks about turning off the lights and pretending no one’s home when they spot him on the way to the front door.
Almost as self-conscious and “weird” as Wilko, are Temple’s choices as director. I hate to fault a film maker for trying to be original and attempt something different, but like The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, most of those attempts just seem like he’s trying a little too hard. One interviewee is filmed in a phone box. But if that’s not “interesting” enough, Temple has him speak into the phone and avoid eye contact with the camera or Temple, like he’s actually having the conversation on the phone. The band’s manager at one point speaks from the driver’s seat of an old, wrecked car. Is it a ham fisted comment on the decay of Canvey Island and the inhabitant’s acceptance of that decay? Or is it just the kind of thing a film school student might do because they think it’s a subtle comment on the decay of Canvey Island and the inhabitant’s acceptance of that decay? There is trick though that does work amazingly well. Some of the interviews with ex-band members take place in front of a huge, forty foot oil refinery tower at night, with old footage of the Feelgoods at their 70s prime, projected onto the tower. And it just looks amazing.
Dr Feelgood update, they still tour today, even though they haven’t had a single original member since 1993. What’s the point?
Directed By – Julian Temple