If you grew up in the UK in the 90s, Oasis were utterly unavoidable. Their music was on constant rotation—on the radio, in bars, on TV, coming out of cruising cars. Their boozy, brawly exploits and their chart battles made front page news. I remember the first time I heard the Manchester brothers more clearly than I recall my first kiss: I was at a house party, jumping up and down on my friend's parent's bed in Southampton, England; I was messily drunk off Diamond White cider, and "Cigarettes and Alcohol" was the all too fitting soundtrack. I was 13.
"You either thought they were the greatest thing ever or you thought they were terrible, but either way it was part of your life," notes Mat Whitecross, director of Oasis: Supersonic, the hotly tipped Oasis documentary which hit UK cinemas this month. As is de rigueur with filmmakers looking to break away from trad doc formats, Supersonic dispenses with talking heads and instead splices together illustrative animations and extensive archival. It's a mixture of unseen VHS clips of rehearsals and behind the scenes shenanigans, plus plenty of previously televised performances, with voiceover narration from the band, their mother Peggy, Alan McGee (who signed the band to Creation Records), and other characters from their inner circle.
In an unconventional move, the Oxford-raised, London-based director decided to focus solely on the early years, ending the story after the band's crowning moment: two nights headlining Knebworth performing to 250,000 people. In fact there was enough demand that Oasis could've sold out ten nights, ultimately playing to a staggering 2.6 million. That was 20 years ago. There's nothing in Supersonic about the battle for the Britpop crown, the tabloid tattle, or Cool Britannia and its collapse. The effect of this focus is two prong: it allows for some revealing, humanising stories regarding the Gallagher's upbringing, their abusive father, and their resultant brotherly dynamics, but it also means the viewer feels the euphoria of every quip, every near disaster, and every triumph Oasis experienced in those years with none of the come down. This film sails out on a high, before the 'he said this and he did that', and crucially, before the onslaught of patchy albums. It makes you wish you were there if you weren't, and long for the old days if you were.
In the years that stretch between now and Knebworth it's been easy to forget what made Oasis such a thrill in the first place—the swaggering tunes, the unpredictability, the sparring that veered from downright dumb to clever-clever. Either way Liam and Noel delivered the entertainment, the drama, and the soundtrack to a window of shared moments and many more moments besides. In this period they were a zeitgeist band and this doc is certainly a testament to this. A reminder of the band's bungles and gaffs both private and public—snorting a bunch of crystal meth thinking it was blow before a critical show in LA being one of them; being denied entry to Holland after causing utter drunken chaos on the ferry ride over being another.
Previous to Supersonic (exec produced by Asif Kapadia—the powerhouse behind Amy and Senna), director Mat Whitecross' most notable projects include an Ian Dury biopic and a comedy about a bunch of kids heading out to see The Stone Roses at their now-storied 1990 Spike Island show. In fact the filmmaker thought he'd initially continue down the path of more political work like The Shock Doctrine (based on a book by Naomi Klein and 2006's doc Road to Guantanamo, co-directed with 24 Hour Party People's Michael Winterbottom). Music was very much a part of his childhood, but world politics were a near constant topic of conversation at the dinner table due to the fact that his Argentinian mother and his English father spent six months in an Argentine jail when the military came to power in '76 because they'd harbored Chilean refugees. Luckily, thanks to Amnesty International, they were exiled back to England before Whitecross was born. "I have plenty more political docs up my sleeve about Iraq and Argentina in the 70s but they're just so hard to finance," explains Whitecross. "Music is a much easier sell."
We called up the 39-year-old director to talk sibling rivalry, the Oasis legacy, what ended up on the cutting room floor, and more below.
Noisey: What are some of the scenes or anecdotes that you wished had made it into the film?
Matt Whitecross: There are so many. In this eight hour cut which I loved personally, we used to start with 20 minutes of Peggy and her childhood. She used to sleep with her seven sisters in one bed, and they had one pair of wellies that all the children shared and they'd walk to school in the morning. They came from extreme poverty. Her courage coming to Manchester on her own… she was actually supposed to go to London but she missed the first ferry. Oasis could easily have been a London band, if things had worked out slightly differently! And then obviously meeting this guy who turned out to be a real piece of work. For me her story is fascinating and explains so much about the brothers. But there wasn't space for all of that. She's a real survivor and has a great sense of humor which is part of their DNA as well. It was slightly heartbreaking cutting that down.
There were things like the big fight in Newcastle where someone attacked Noel on stage. Jo Wiley [Radio 1 DJ] was there and happened to be recording for the [radio show the ] Evening Session and so we had some great audio for it. We tried to animate it and it looked brilliant. And I was like, even if we cut the rest of the film that's going to stay. And then it was the only bit you could take out and you didn't miss it because it kind of repeated some of the other incidents, like in Amsterdam. We had a little coda about the disastrous US tour, where Liam got on the plane then decided he wasn't going because he wanted to go house hunting, and Noel went and did a solo gig, and then Noel quite because of Liam. It was a total pile up and it was great, but there's something poetic about doing something about the biggest gig of all time, and somehow acknowledging it was the beginning of the end. It you get into the tit for tat aftermath it seemed much less interesting in a way, because it felt like, I know all of this and I've seen all of this before.
The guys have production credits, don't they? How involved were they with the edit ultimately?
It's that classic exec credit, it means nothing and everything in the sense that without them, we couldn't have made the film. They opened up their address books, their schedule. They allowed us to interview them as many times as we wanted. We did it for about 20 hours each, over two and bit months. Even at the end of that, they told us we could come back for more interviews. They were incredibly generous in that sense. But they weren't in the cutting room deciding what was in and what was out. We said we'd show them the film a couple times and we'd take on any notes that they had. I was worried it would be like, "Hang on Noel said this about me" and "Liam said this about me," but they didn't mind about any of the insults; they were used to it. All the things you think would be a big deal weren't.
We showed them a two and half hour cut and at the end Noel said, "Yep it's good, but it's too long. No film about a band should be longer than the band's greatest hits!" Fair enough. We spent quite a long time in the final session talking about the legacy of the band, and if Oasis had been born 20 years later and they were coming of age now, would they still be able to make it. That formed the end of the film originally. But we could cut it out and you didn't miss it. I felt that this film was a kind of call to arms. The music industry has become a bit beige, and it's lost the punk energy that it had. And Noel was like, "I think that's an important thing to say to people: if we can do it, you can do it. It's really about the fans." So I put some of that back in. There was no censorship. Liam was the same, he was like, "What did our kid say?" I'd tell him and he'd say, "Yup fair enough, I'd go along with that." There were no lines or digs that were beyond the pale.
What's the biggest misconception about those two guys?
It's interesting because Noel is still very much in the public eye, whereas Liam took some time out. Noel is still doing the interviews, but Liam, very deliberately after Beady Eye was like, "OK I'm done for a while." There's a tabloid caricature of the two of them that's the way people remember them, and that's part of the reason I wanted to go back and ask the questions again. For example, a lot of people think Liam's a mindless hooligan who runs around getting into scrapes, doing a lot of crystal meth and jumping out windows and attacking people. Obviously there's an element of that, but actually he's a very sweet and sensitive dude and very talented in his own right, and I wanted to address that in some ways. Also I think Noel gets dismissed as just copying The Beatles. That never rang true to me. I know they were influenced by the legacy of The Beatles and they wanted to be as good as them, but it's not like they're ripping off Sgt. Pepper's. Some people would talk about Noel, "Oh he's very cold," and I was like, OK if that's your opinion then where does that come from? We got to explore his childhood and where he does express himself.
What do you think the legacy of Oasis will be?
In terms of legacy, they've always been very confident—like Liam said in the film—that they had a place up there with the big boys. But for whatever reason in the UK if someone gets too big for their boots, we're going to knock them down. I don't think they have that so much in the States. It's that tall poppy syndrome: You want to bring people down a peg or two if they're too successful. I think that's one of the reasons why they wanted to make the film. What they achieved was incredible by anyone's standards and no matter what you think of the music, their achievement still stands.
I discussed it with Noel when we met that first time: he said, "I want people to realize that anything is still possible. You're being told all the time that this isn't doable and musicians have to behave a certain way actually that's not true. You can reinvent the rulebook tomorrow."
Not long ago Liam called Noel a potato on Twitter, which I thought was hilarious. Possibly the best insult around?
It's pretty inventive. The more childish Liam's insults are, the more they wind Noel up, and that's why he does it. It's tricky. I always felt like I was acting like a parent between the two of them. They come in and one of them would slate the other, and the other would slate the other one. Apparently that's what they'd do with their mum: They'd ring her up every day and ask how the other's doing. There's so much love and so much bullshit between them. That's just brothers I guess, they can't ever really tell the other one how they feel. Noel's now established as the elder statesman of rock 'n' roll in this country and the more childish the insult, the more annoying it must be. Liam knows how to push his buttons.
How long do you think it will be until they put the reunion tickets on sale?
I don't know. It seems further and further away every day. On the other hand, neither of them have ever said no. Everyone wants them to reform, partly because they are brothers and it seems such a crying shame that they're not part of each other's lives and also because we obviously want to see Oasis back together. It's a tricky one. There's a reason neither of them has said no, and it's not just because they don't want to let the fans down—I think there's a part of them that doesn't completely want to close the door. Liam's always said he didn't want to break up the band up in the first place. And Noel's thing is he's doing different stuff, and I think Liam's about to start doing solo stuff too. They're pretty busy. But I think it'd be such a shame if they never got back together again, for them and for us.
Well, but I'd only want them to play the first two records and then I'd want them to stop!
Controversial! Personally, I don't think any of them have matched the first two albums. It's a hard thing for them to live up to, or anyone else, to live up to. There are some great tunes on the other albums. I'd be happy just to see them on stage again.
Why do you think people love them so much, especially the British people?
There's something about them, it's not just a nostalgic thing. There's a kind of don't give a fuck punk spirit to those guys that was unique and is such a great antidote to the times that we live in where people are a lot more respectable. The last thing you want is for rock 'n' roll to get too respectable. There's also something about them being brothers: there's something private going on between the two them that we'll never quite understand. We tried to capture that in the film, but I liked the fact that we finished on a note, like look, we can all speculate, and have opinions, but ultimately comes down to the two of them. I like that sense of mystery about it. Also there's just that explosive element to them. You never knew if they were going to finish a song or an album without killing each other. It's kind of mesmerizing. I love that about rock 'n' roll, I like that spirit.
I wish rock 'n' roll was still mainstream.
I know! Maybe it'll come back. These things always come back. At the time they became big dance music had taken over and it was the Hacienda and that scene and they were antidote to that. It'll come around again. One day, there'll be another band like Oasis, I'm sure.
Kim Taylor Bennett still drinks cider, but not Diamond White. Follow her on Twitter.