By David Huggins
Sunday 2nd October 2016 saw the premiere of Supersonic, Mat Whitecross’s explosive new documentary about Oasis’s amazing rags to riches story. In just three short years Oasis emerged from back-room obscurity to become the band that defined rock ’n’ roll for the 90s; Whitecross’s film takes a fresh look at Oasis, blending candid new interviews with unseen archive footage to recreate the heady rush of the band’s glory days.
The premiere was held at Manchester Odeon Printworks, followed by a live-stream Q&A with Liam Gallagher and director Mat Whitecross. I was delighted to receive an invite to this special screening, as a thank you for helping out with various research queries during the production process. I travelled up from my home town of Norwich the day before, which also allowed me to squeeze in a visit to the Delia Derbyshire archive at the John Rylands Library (indulging another of my musical obsessions). On the Sunday afternoon I headed into the city centre to grab a bite to eat, before collecting my ticket from the Odeon’s box office; doors would open at 6.30pm, with Liam and Mat due to arrive by helicopter shortly after!
After exploring the nearby Arndale Centre, I headed back to the Odeon to find a long queue of fans buzzing with excitement for the film. Whilst we waited a member of the Odeon’s team explained that Ted Kessler would be hosting the Q&A, handing us paper slips on which we could write our questions for Liam and Mat. Before I knew it though, the main doors opened and the crowd surged forward, past the red carpet where Bonehead was giving an interview to BBC News.
Inside Screen 18 a team of technicians were busily fixing their lights and cameras for the Q&A, whilst test tones boomed out of the speakers circling the room. On the way in I spotted Oasis producer Owen Morris, and said hello as he was finding his seat. Moments later Bonehead appeared, joining his family a few rows behind. By now the lights were dimmed, and Tony McCaroll’s thunderous drum intro to Bring it on Down filled the room. As the track took off a montage of Jill Furmanovsky’s classic Oasis photographs flashed across the screen, counting down to the premiere…
The film grabs your attention from the first frame, with the sonic boom of a jet plane set against dizzying aerial footage of the vast crowds at Oasis’s Knebworth concerts in August 1996. Out of this roaring noise slowly emerged the hazy, swirling guitars from the album version of Columbia, a menacing crescendo that – amplified through the cinema’s speakers – sounded like Oasis’s equivalent of the THX power chord. This in turn gave way to a ferocious live performance of the song at the gig itself, prompting director Mat Whitecross’s big question to Noel and Liam: “What happened to you in those three years?” The next two hours provided the answer, in a dynamic style that captured the band’s swaggering confidence and self-belief.
Fans of the band will love the incredible archive footage that Mat Whitecross and his team have uncovered for the documentary. Supersonic’s researchers Hannah Green, James McDonald, and John Greathead have found a huge range of film and video, much of which has never been seen before. Throughout the film, evocative BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 footage of Oasis is supplemented by many new sources, including unique camcorder videos taped by members of the band’s inner circle. This is brought home early on, as Whitecross takes us back in time from widescreen 35mm film of the band playing Columbia at Knebworth, to a fuzzy camcorder clip of them (three years earlier) rehearsing the same song in the cramped basement of the Boardwalk in Manchester. The contrast couldn’t be more marked, driving home the scale of Oasis’s achievement.
Some of the best unseen footage comes from Tim Abbot’s unique camcorder videos – together with Noel, Liam, Bonehead and Tony’s new commentary they allow director Mat Whitecross to go beyond the media caricature of Oasis, giving us an unguarded view of the band as they rose to fame. Of particular note is Tim’s clip of Liam recording his vocal for Champagne Supernova at Rockfield Studios; the song has become so familiar and iconic that it’s remarkable to see it taking shape before it became public property, with Liam trying out slightly different phrasing to that heard on the final mix. Elsewhere we see Liam playing air guitar as Noel and Owen Morris listen back to a rough mix of It’s Better People, with Noel remarking that Oasis were – like the Beatles – off to the “toppermost of the poppermost.”
Sadly no film exists of certain infamous moments such as Noel and Liam’s cricket bat fight at Rockfield Studios, but these are effortlessly reconstructed by new animations that are highly entertaining in their own right, as well as varying the look of the film in sections that otherwise might have been dominated by talking heads recounting the events. These new visuals are fast, funny, and colourful, vividly conveying that sense of hilarity and chaos which characterised life on the road with Oasis. The animators have a field day with the infamous punch up on the band’s ferry to Holland in 1994: the ship’s safety instructions are reworked to show the fight breaking out, whilst shots of Liam extracted from the music video for Supersonic picture him running along the deck, grinning with wide-eyed excitement. Elsewhere Noel’s admission that he didn’t just stride into a saloon bar and take over Oasis is complemented by a witty cartoon of him kicking open swinging double doors to the tune of Ennio Morricone-style Western music.
Coupled with Noel, Liam, Bonehead, and drummer Tony McCarroll’s new audio interviews, Supersonic provides a much more rounded portrayal of Oasis than the papers allowed at the time, giving a greater insight into how their personalities shaped the band. Over footage of Noel and Liam arm wrestling (backstage at Top of the Pops for Some Might Say) Oasis biographer Paolo Hewitt astutely observes that Noel and Liam’s sibling rivalry “made that band and it broke that band.” Noel’s comments are just as frank, and framed by his trademark dry wit. He sees his own personality as like a cat (slightly aloof, self-contained, “not giving a fuck”), with Liam being more like a dog (lively and extrovert, desperate for people to take notice and play with). The film doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the power struggle within the group either, with Noel reflecting at one point that tensions would often arise out of the fact that he assumed a leadership role, with the others looking to him for the next song, album, and gig. It was a role that he briefly fled from after the band’s disastrous, crystal meth-fuelled performance at the Whisky a Go Go in ’94, an episode recounted to hilarious effect in Supersonic.
Both brothers are also disarmingly candid about the abuse they suffered at the hands of their father, Tommy. The topic is handled sensitively by Whitecross, giving Noel, Liam, and their mother Peggy the space to reflect on the effect that this period had on their lives. Liam confides at one point that, when Oasis started, he found he could express the anger he felt at Tommy through his singing (Liam:“I was an angry young man. I had a lot of shit going on inside, maybe from what happened when I was growing up… and by singing I could get that shit out, in a good way”). When combined with Noel’s songs about escaping home, his vocals created a cathartic blend of euphoria and melancholy highlighted by writer Alex Niven in his book on Definitely Maybe: “[Liam’s] searing, abrasive vocal… manages to distil both the fierce idealism of Oasis’s ambitions and the pain of the environment that had engendered that idealism in the first place.”
Liam is equally open about the physical toll taken by his singing style, likening a gig to ten rounds in the boxing ring. He’s just as vivid when talking about the high points of performing live with Oasis; over a clip of the band’s gig at Earls Court in 1995 he describes the transcendent stillness he felt at certain points, as something like the eye of the hurricane: “When the sound is pumping and the crowd is roaring… everything seems still and it’s the best moment I could ever imagine. Total control.” As Liam speaks Whitecross converts the footage to hypnotic slow-motion, and briefly filters the music for a boomy, “party next door” sound – an immersive combination of editing and sound design that makes the viewer feel as though you’ve experienced that moment just as Liam did.
Some of the most insightful comments on Noel’s role in Oasis are made by his close friend Mark Coyle, who recalls that his favourite moments in the studio with Oasis have been whilst Noel recorded his vocals. As Talk Tonight plays in the background, Coyle observes that Noel can be fairly emotionally guarded in everyday life, only fully opening up when singing. Coyle fondly speaks of those times when Noel’s vocal expresses something more tender and reflective, with an almost child-like innocence that’s displaced by laddish humour soon after the recording is over (Mark: “Ten minutes later the guard is back down and he’s taking the piss, calling you a twat or something”).
On the difficult topic of his abusive father, Noel bluntly claims that – on some level – his dad “beat the talent into him.” He reasons that the terrible beatings he suffered led him to withdraw emotionally, and to retreat to his room to and play acoustic guitar. Writing music then became his means of escape (both physical and emotional), inspiring him to develop his talent to the level of worldwide recognition and acclaim documented in Whitecross’s film. Peggy treats this challenging topic with honesty and flashes of stoic humour, concluding that when she finally fled the family home with her children, they left Tommy with just “a knife, a spoon, and a fork… and even then I think I left him too much!”
The Gallaghers’ resolve against Tommy was tested again in 1996 by a typically nasty publicity stunt engineered by the News of the World. The paper arranged a confrontation between the Gallaghers and their estranged father, and later set up a premium-rate phone line in which readers could hear a recording of the resulting argument. This audio makes for awkward listening, but gives a telling illustration of the corrosive media spotlight that the band were under at the height of their fame. Noel observes that by 1996 they were so far beyond what Tommy represented in their past life that he was not worth the time of day; they had transcended all that long ago, a fact emphasized by a still of Tommy fading into the distance.
The film’s final reel picks up the pace after this reflective interlude, building up momentum towards their epic gigs at Knebworth in August 1996. The breakneck tempo perfectly recreates the sense of excitement and urgency surrounding the band at that time, with producer Owen Morris recalling that: “Marcus [Russell, Oasis’s manager] said we’d better do this big gig whilst we can because Oasis is like a runaway train and we don’t know how long it’s going to last.” The question of how long Oasis could have lasted is pondered by the band during majestic footage of them playing Champagne Supernova. Liam remains incredulous that they didn’t play more nights (“We should still be there, man!”), whilst Bonehead feels that Knebworth was their crowning glory and they should have finished on that high (“Thank you and good night, we have been Oasis”). For Noel, this historic footage sparked his acknowledgement of the band being greater than the sum of its parts (“None of us was the best in the world at anything, but together the five of us created something else.”).
At this point the cinema audience were on their feet, singing along to Champagne Supernova as Liam’s voice filled the room. Fading just before John Squire’s epic guitar solo, Noel returned to reminisce about how far the band had come and pondered whether anything like it could happen again today. As he sees it, Oasis were the last big rock ’n’ roll band before social media, and you simply had to be there to experience it. His comments also acknowledged a political angle, arguing that “20 years ago the biggest musical phenomenon started on a council estate in Manchester – but, in the world in which we live today, it’s hard to imagine it happening again.” This echoed his outspoken comments in a 2014 interview for NME, in which he argued “Music is [now] very middle class, I’d have eaten Bastille alive in an afternoon in the ’90s, one interview, destroyed, gone, never to be heard of again. Easy, had ‘em for breakfast. My bass player summed it up, we’re constantly saying, ‘Where is the next band coming from?’ and he rightly says, ‘Never mind the band, where are the people?’” As The Masterplan faded in over the end credits, his words sounded like a rallying cry, as well as a celebration of what Oasis had achieved.
Soon after the last credit had rolled and the applause faded, the house lights went up and we were straight into the Q&A, hosted by Ted Kessler. At the last minute the chairs were whisked away before Mat Whitecross arrived, followed shortly by the national treasure that is Liam Gallagher. There was a huge roar from the crowd as he nonchalantly strolled onto the stage, looking much the same as he did in ’96.
Once the audience calmed down Liam noted that the set looked a bit like This is Your Life, and Mat explained how he became involved in making the film – he had initially thought the band were getting back together and doing a tour, but once he realised they weren’t, he got talking to them about Oasis’s early years. He felt these would be the most interesting to put on the silver screen, and was delighted when both Noel and Liam got on board for the project (despite his initial worry that you should never meet your heroes). Working with them on the film had been a pleasure, and they had been very generous with their time.
Liam was in his element throughout the Q&A, bouncing off the crowd’s excitement and ultimately getting Bonehead down on stage to join them. Towards the end Mat mentioned that there was originally a longer (7-hour long) cut of Supersonic that he’d love to release, but which would probably be too expensive to clear. It’s a tantalising prospect for a future DVD anthology perhaps, but the film as it stands brilliantly captures what made Oasis special. Liam summed it up by saying: “I love the film and it’s emotional, it’s great… there’s some sad bits with all the bullshit with me and our kid and that, but the majority – when you slice it fuckin’ open – it’s euphorically beautiful and I love it.” A great end to a magical evening. Go and see it!
(Article © David Huggins, 2016).