By Tom Stroud
There’s a sequence in Supersonic, Mat Whitecross’s new documentary film about Oasis, where Liam Gallagher describes how he loses himself in the music. Archive footage captures him onstage in front of tens of thousands of fans and as he describes the transcendent power of the music, we are carried along with him. Whitecross slows down the visuals and the sound is reduced to a bass-heavy throb. It’s a cinematic moment that brings you as close as you’ll probably ever get to sharing a headspace with Oasis’s singer.
The moment is peak Oasis too, from 1995, when the Manchester band were the most potent force in British music, riding the zeitgeist, a tabloid-friendly band that entertained on many levels. A year later the gigs would be even bigger, peaking with 250,000 people at Knebworth, but something would be lost forever. This film is the story of that rise to fame, and the journey to a peak that could never be sustained. Bookended by Knebworth footage, it’s a two-hour story of triumph and also self-realisation. Luckily for everyone involved, the tunes are brilliant and it’s often hilarious.
By the now the tale is well worn – the rags to riches story of the battling Burnage brothers who captured the imaginations of the NME and the broadsheets, releasing the fastest selling debut album in 1994 and the 22 million selling (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? in 1995. Supersonic is a nostalgic and evocative breeze through those years, a perfect primer for those who weren’t there then, and with more than enough insight and unseen footage for those who were.
Like Amy and Senna, this is a layered tapestry of archive material, drawing on TV shows, personal camcorder footage, and family photos. The narrative comes from 2016 interviews, taking the Gallagher brothers from the council estate to working class hero status. The pre-fame years are well documented and 1992 footage of the original line-up rehearsing a tentative version of All Around The World is an early highlight. The Oasis sound isn’t quite there yet, but Liam’s charisma and Noel’s way with a melody are writ large. There’s an endearing naivety, from the days when being in an unknown band was all about “wanting to get a big telly and a fit bird”, according to Noel.
Supersonic reminds you just how effortless the early years were. Oasis’s undeniable hedonism can often obscure the craftsmanship of the musical performances; here we see for the first time control room footage of Liam’s raw vocal take for Champagne Supernova and it’s spellbinding. We get to hear an unheard Noel demo for Live Forever, the song that would change everything, and there’s also a Liam-sung demo for Sad Song that has been unknown to collectors until now. The archive has been thoroughly trawled and we even hear snatches of taped phone conversations between manager Marcus Russell and label boss Alan McGee. Where there isn’t footage, Whitecross gets creative, using animation to bring to life the story of the Amsterdam ferry incident as well as the moment a young Liam gets a hammer blow to the head at school.
This film is ostensibly a documentary about Oasis but it’s really a film that stars Noel and Liam Gallagher. Their relationship is the emotional core of Supersonic. During the film Noel chooses an animal analogy to describe their personalities. He is a cat, Liam is a dog. Noel also describes himself as “a bit of a c—.” Such generalisations aside, the brothers emerge more nuanced and less caricatured than usual.
When initially approached to take part in the film, Liam’s biggest question was “who’s the villain?” In the end neither Gallagher is, but of the two it’s Liam who is seen as the funnier, warmer brother. Noel is more determined, at times ruthless, but also more analytical. In one crucial scene he pays tribute to Liam’s strengths as a frontman and acknowledges Liam “will always be cooler… and wear better clothes”.
Noel is the driving force behind the group, whose songs elevated Liam’s band from the doldrums. He’s emotionally invested in the group, leaving in disgust in 1994 when the rest of the group disgrace themselves by blowing a crucial performance at LA’s Whisky a Go Go, wired on crystal meth. The moment is perfectly exploited by Whitecross who lets the horrifically shambolic version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Star play for all its comedic value. Noel’s subsequent escape to San Francisco where he writes Talk Tonight weaves the music into the narrative.
Noel’s strengths as a songwriter are unquestioned and throughout the songs are exceptional, from Columbia to The Masterplan. Noel’s need for recognition as a writer, then singer, and then performer are highlighted in a montage of Wonderwall performances from 1995. At the time it’s by far Oasis’s biggest song, sung by Liam on record, but by Noel in a solo performance during the live show. There’s an awkward shot of Liam in the wings, watching his brother apparently stealing the moment. It’s easy to see how the resentment grew. In Noel’s defence, not all of those moments were of his making, with the spotlight initially thrust upon him when Liam would fail to turn up.
Later on we see another side to Noel when he defuses a massively tense situation caused by the sudden appearance of Thomas Gallagher, their abusive, absent father. Noel manages to placate Liam and prevent him from attacking their father in front of the News Of The World at an aftershow party. It’s the deepest glimpse on offer into Noel’s psyche. His mother Peggy is candid about the physical abuse Noel suffered at the hands of his father but Noel himself is more prosaic and doesn’t go into detail.
Noel and Liam are credited as executive producers and each sat for days of interviews with director Mat Whitecross. Liam’s own take on their diminished relationship is that “even if we were fishmongers we still would’ve slapped each other with a bit of trout every now and again.” He also claims the divisions between the brothers began when, as a drunken teenager, he relieved himself on Noel’s new stereo in their shared bedroom. The real truth is revealed as the film progresses. There are plenty of instances of Noel and Liam in 1994 and 1995 where there’s bickering, mockery, and rivalry, but still a playful innocence, affection and even love, as evidenced in dressing room footage shot backstage at Top Of The Pops. The rot sets in as the band gets bigger and songwriter Noel enjoys the financial rewards of writing songs familiar to millions. Even now it clearly rankles Liam; after the premiere screening he pointedly refers to the absent Noel as being in “one of his really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, big houses.”
Seeing Liam answer fans’ questions afterwards you can’t help but look at his face and reflect on how his life has been changed by the Oasis phenomenon. In the film itself voices are only heard and there are no 2016 faces to be seen. The archive footage tells the story, driven by the commentary drawn from hours of interviews. That approach is a masterstroke and keeps the viewer “in the moment.”
Elsewhere, ousted original drummer Tony McCarroll emerges with dignity in the face of some rough treatment. Noel says he can’t remember the exact circumstances of Tony’s sacking but concedes that the drummer’s version of events is probably true. There’s little sympathy for bassist Paul McGuigan’s nervous exhaustion, which saw him temporarily leave the band in 1995. There’s mockery too for his brief replacement Scott McLeod, who stays long enough to appear in the Wonderwall video but abandons the band during an American tour blaming homesickness. Neither Scott or Guigsy are interviewed in the film.
The wider cast of interviewees goes beyond the band. The talking heads are all pertinent and include key witnesses like producer Owen Morris and biographer Paolo Hewitt. Noel’s long time friend and confidante Mark Coyle adds another perspective. He enters the Oasis story at the same time as Noel joins Liam’s band but the hedonism turns to disenchantment and Coyle stops working for Oasis in 1995. He’s back a year later though, joining the band for the helicopter ride to Knebworth. It’s a symbolic moment, with all involved realising that this is moment that can’t be equalled and that by August 1996 the fun was already running out. The concert footage, largely unseen until now, looks stunning and the poignant montage of fireworks at the end of the record breaking concerts is another cinematic moment.
Speaking after the premiere, director Mat Whitecross confirmed that the original cut of the film was more than 7 hours long, and the theatrical version definitely leaves you wanting more. The final edit even ignores moments of drama like Noel being assaulted onstage in Newcastle in 1994; surprisingly there is no mention either of Blur and the “battle of Britpop”. In a way it’s actually refreshing, as the footage of the Six O’Clock News and the Country House video are now over-familiar.
Ultimately Supersonic documents those early years in swaggering style. As a story it’s powerful, self-contained, and convenient, ending with the self-reflection that follows a massive high. The later years will see Oasis overtaken in the sales charts and caught up in internal battles, with line-up changes, divorces, and much more brotherly psychodrama, ending with a piece of fruit being thrown backstage in Paris. Within moments it would all be over, but that story isn’t here. Liam himself has suggested making a follow-up film, covering “the downfall of Oasis, which would be equally as fucking entertaining, if not better. If you’re gonna lose the plot – lose it properly.”
We all know that there’s another story still be told, and that’s the frustration. Perhaps it’s still too raw, or perhaps it’s a tale that just can’t be told in two hours. It would certainly make for a much less triumphant film. Mat Whitecross has talked about an abandoned coda to the film that covered Oasis “going over to America and deliberately fucking it up, but it just felt like a sour note to end on.” With Supersonic you can’t have it all, regardless of how much you might want it.
So is it definitive? Maybe. The mention of that 7-hour director’s cut is tantalising, and hopefully one day the later years will be covered in the same depth. The Oasis story can definitely sustain an Anthology-style extended documentary series. Right now though this film is the most honest, compelling, loudest, and nuanced account of those world-shaking early years. Don’t wait for the Blu-Ray – go and see it on the big screen to recapture those memories, the music and the times. And for anyone who came to the party after 2009, Supersonic is the closest you’ll get to being there, then.
(Article © Tom Stroud, 2016)