One of the most immediate things you notice about Canvey Island in the UK is its desolate, almost-lifeless visage. Adorned in the most brutal way possible by a gargantuan oil refinery, it is a most fitting birth place for one of rock music’s most enigmatic, yet seemingly underappreciated acts in history; progenitors of punk Dr Feelgood. Julien Temple (The Future is Unwritten, The Filth and The Fury) once again brings to life music’s most lucid tales, this time with the least known acts to complete his trio of films (Joe Strummer and the Sex Pistols in the aforementioned documentaries). Dr Feelgood were, to all intents and purposes, punk before punk- straggling on stage around 1971 against the glam and glitz of stadium rock being served by the likes of the Beatles and the Stones and their kind. This is the very essence of the piece, that Dr Feelgood were rock’s mainstream counterculture, the pre-eminent underground rock n’ roll band.
Let’s make no bones about it however; Oil City Confidential is driven by Dr Feelgood’s primary guitarist and chief songwriter Wilko Johnson. This man is the documentary’s tour de force protagonist, praised for his iconoclastic herky-jerky guitar movements on stage and choppy riff style, his recounts and storytelling are the centrepiece of Oil City. His eyes bulge when he tells you about Canvey Island, he shimmies, shakes, and bounces all over the screen, and the history of the band comes to life because Johnson knows how to tell a great tale.
Other than the band’s almost-as-enigmatic lead singer Lee Brilleaux, we don’t get as much substance from the supporting cast. There are interesting bits and pieces that prop up the two main characters, but it is Johnson and Brilleaux that make this band unforgettable. The latter of who, regales us with his immense drinking ability, dirty white suit, and great rock n’ roll frontmanship. Sadly Brilleaux lost his battle with cancer in the mid-90s and his presence is made up or archival footage and interviews long before this documentary was made- but through the snippets of live footage and television appearance, it is clear that Brilleaux was one of rock n’ roll’s most memorable lead singers. Fittingly, burning out more than fading away.
The editing is fast paced and Temple is almost better than anyone at setting up a great backdrop to a music documentary. This is perhaps the weaker of his trio, but only because the Sex Pistols and The Clash provide a richer source of music history. It is however no reason to overlook Oil City Confidential, in their own small place in history on a broken down, ugly piece of English land, Dr Feelgood wrecked havoc just as well as anyone, and reserve their right to be remembered.