Oliver Stone. That’s the filmmaker who should have been asked to chronicle the career of Oasis, the hugely successful, ever-combustible, now-departed kings of Britpop. Looking at the entirety of the band’s lifespan — from the early 1990s to break-up in 2008 — it’s hard not to notice the trademarks of Doors-era Stone: controversies, fisticuffs, conspiracies, bravery, insanity, ego, vulnerability, lust, and violence. In rock and roll, these are positives, and the joys that emanate from such feelings and behavior is certainly on display in Oasis: Supersonic, a Noel and Liam Gallagher-approved documentary. The band’s career, however, is not really the subject of the new documentary directed by Mat Whitecross and from the producers of Amy, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse documentary. Instead, Supersonic is about the rise of the band, the period from birth to its two concerts (to 250,000 attendees) at Knebworth.
And that’s fine, since Supersonic is a wildly entertaining blast of energy and bombast. There are few successes in music history quite like the one-two punch of Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, and the film’s mix of interviews, videos, concert scenes, and unseen footage is, in a word, stunning. Even die-hard Oasis fans will be floored by scenes of the band’s first concert with Noel Gallagher, at Scotland’s King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in 1993. (Not to mention video from the band’s infamous Whisky A Go Go bust-up in 1994, as well as a rehearsal room performance of “All Around the World” from the early 90s.)
Told mostly in chronological order after opening with the band’s epic Knebworth concerts (minus a few time jumps), Supersonic moves from the Gallagher brothers’ youthful antics to the start of Oasis, signing by Creation Records, the remarkable successes of Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory, and… that’s it. The Knebworth gigs surely represent the apex of Oasis’s popularity, but hitting the brakes here may disappoint the band’s most hardcore fans. Those hoping for tales of the 2007 bust-up that killed the band must look elsewhere. Newer fans and those with only a modest interest in Oasis are likely to walk away a bit more impressed by the film, and what the Gallaghers accomplished. As Noel puts it in the film, “I don’t think anybody will ever be able to fully explain to people, who are maybe like teenagers now, what a colossal thing Oasis was in the lives of anybody who gave a shit about music,” Gallagher said.
Indeed, Supersonic does a fine job of showing just how large-scale the phenomenon was: countless concert scenes, lots of snappin’ paparazzi, and some stunningly nasty put-downs from Noel to “has-beens” like the late Michael Hutchence. More intriguing are the photos and stories from Noel and Liam’s childhood in the Manchester suburb of Burnage. The unsung hero of these early scenes is surely mom Peggie Gallagher, a hard-working, loving figure forced to hold down several jobs. Her husband was physically abusive, and the scenes described by Peggie, Noel, Liam, and third brother Paul are harrowing. Psychologically, we learn much about the brothers’ Gallagher here, and the reappearance of their father at the height of the band’s popularity is both sad and expected.
The opposite is true of, well, much of the film. There are moments of (sometimes surreal) humor, specifically an animated re-creation of a drunken ferry ride to Amsterdam, some studio hijinks during the making of Morning Glory, and Noel’s admission that Liam oozed the rock-star charisma that he [Noel] did not: “He had a great haircut, a great walk.” Noel, in particular, comes across as the most thoughtful member of the band. (Sorry, Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs and Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan; only the former agreed to be interviewed for Supersonic.) The most startling example might be his memories of writing the song “Supersonic” during the time it took for the other members of the band to eat some take-out food. Liam Gallagher’s starpower remains undeniable; whether messing about at the Definitely Maybe cover shoot or pontificating poolside in Japan, it’s clear his magnetism was as important to Oasis’s success as the hooks of “Live Forever” and “Wonderwall.”
Supersonic truly blasts off after Definitely Maybe drops, and the band is hurtled toward international popularity. The film ends with 1996’s Knebworth concerts, and this means we never see the drug-fueled excess of Be Here Now, not to mention the fascinating place Oasis found themselves in after the tide turned against that record. It’s understandable that Whitecross chose Knebworth as an ending point, since the band never again commanded the attention of the zeitgeist on that scale. It takes for granted that we all know what happened from then on — as Liam puts it late in the film, “We were never gonna do ten rounds” — but leaves us wanting more. Perhaps that’s what every music documentary should aspire to.
Yet as a longtime Oasis fan, it’s hard not to see Supersonic as something of a missed opportunity. There are some surprisingly notable omissions. The band’s influences — The Beatles (of course), The Smiths, The Stone Roses — are barely acknowledged. (We do hear a Stone Roses tune in the background of an early scene; interestingly, Whitecross previously directed the 2012 ensemble comedy Spike Island, which used the Roses’ famous concert as its backdrop.) The controversial 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, which saw Liam drop out due to vocal issues, is unmentioned, an odd choice considering the major headlines it caused. Also missing is the band’s 1996 MTV Video Music Awards performance of “Champagne Supernova,” notable for Liam’s slow gob at song’s end. “Britpop” and “Cool Britannia” are never uttered. But most noteworthy is the film’s failure to include the infamous “Blur vs. Oasis” battle of summer 1995. The simultaneous release of Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’s “Roll With It” was the starting point for the 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever, so this ground has indeed been covered on film. Still, the band’s “loss” to Blur, followed by a gargantuan victory on the album charts, is an undeniably important moment in the group’s history, and U.K. music in general.
Interestingly, Whitecross chooses to use only voice-over; we never seen the Noel and Liam (not to mention Bonehead or Guigsy) of today. It’s a surprising move, as watching the brothers speak is often more interesting than what they actually say. There’s also a surplus amount of concert footage. (My friend Anthony Chabala, a longtime expert regarding the instruments used by the band, considers Supersonic a concert film with biographical embellishments.) Even with these minor quibbles, we’re left with a film that is undeniably strong, and never less that hugely entertaining. The only logical criticisms, in fact, relate to what’s left out. There is still a great, epic, full account of the Oasis story to be told. In the meantime, we have Supersonic, a reminder of a time when two brothers born in poverty and bred on Beatles took over the world. It didn’t last long, but it was one helluva ride. Above all else, Supersonic captures that feeling.
Oasis: Supersonic screens for one night only on Wednesday, October 26.