America never understood Oasis’ hugeness. By that I don't just mean the band's epochal mid-'90s global popularity or the nationalistic fervor it stirred in the U.K. I mean, simply, its hugeness of sound. In the States, only the ballads connected, the glorious/meaningless Beatle raptures “Wonderwall,” “Live Forever” and “Champagne Supernova” — that last one so sweepingly inarticulate that, if you're as stoned as it is, the dumbest lyrics might circle right back around to genius. (Who hasn't experienced time as "slowly walking down the hall/faster than a cannonball"?
Before their second LP hit '60s highs so grand that even the killjoys at American alt-rock radio couldn't deny them, the swaggering Gallagher brothers synthesized into their debut everything they had ever loved about English rock and roll. Definitely Maybe nicked a T-Rex lick and some “Yellow Submarine” doggerel, but songwriter/guitarist Noel Gallagher's thievery was in service of an aesthetic goal not dissimilar from the Ramones': stripping away everything lame about present-day chart hits to mash the spirit of an earlier age — in this case, Beatles '66 — with a sour-candy punk crunch.
Mat Whitecross’ ripping, riotous new Oasis doc opens with "Columbia," Definitely Maybe's most representative track, here performed for 125,000 fans standing in a field at Knebworth in 1996. "Columbia" was all borrowed but all new, a stomping epic of Manchester's baggy beats, the trance grind of shoegaze and “Tomorrow Never Knows” and guitars beyond number in layered and pulsing strata, the solos aping John Squire (The Stone Roses) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths). Over the roar: the decade's brattiest frontman yowling out hook after hook like he'll never run out of them. The lyrics aren't crafted to communicate; they're meant to be shouted back, to echo like the yeah yeah yeahs of "She Loves You," which have a cameo in the fifth minute of "Columbia.” Oasis’ performance, at Knebworth and on record, is glacial, geological, a core sample of all the pop history of their island. All those fans may as well have been cheering Stonehenge.
Not invested in that past, American rockists found the Gallaghers' borrowings gauche rather than cheeky. The same went for Oasis’ performative cocksureness, its insistence that it was the world's greatest band. What Americans missed is that, by these musicians’ definition, they were the greatest by default — they're the only band that sounded like what Oasis thought bands should sound like. Oasis was a referendum on what listeners wanted from rock and roll at all at the end of the album era. They weren't the Sex Beatles, as London's music press dubbed them. They were rock's Marsalis brothers, advancing and embodying their own highly selective idea of a canon.
It's easy and reductive to link Oasis’ conservative sound to Brexit, or to say that Britpop was built to make England great again. Supersonic, pointedly, ignores most of the cultural context around Oasis. There's no talk of their Britpop peers, no consideration of the pop-grunge fervor they were up against in America, not one moment spared to consider what any other pop stars were up to, save Noel's boast, in vintage pre-fame footage, that by the end of the ‘90s he'll have claimed the severed head of Phil Collins. (Noel, in a present-day interview, uses the word "blur" in a sentence, but never as a proper noun.)
Instead, this is a raucous study of life inside the hurricane's eye, the story of a band from the band's perspective — often literally, through video footage they shot themselves. Other than some cutesy animation, most of Whitecross’ footage dates from the era, and much of it's comic, tragic or tragicomic: There they are at an industry showcase at the Whiskey a Go Go, failing to bash through their set opener because a day earlier they mistook crystal meth for cocaine. There they are on the Letterman show, banging out “Morning Glory” with an assist from Paul Shaffer's band after losing their second bass player in as many weeks. There's Noel or his snotty brother Liam, high as hell, ranting toward camcorders so fast that Americans might fight to suss out the particulars.
It's a safe bet, generally, that if Liam's pissed it's about Noel, and if Noel's pissed it's about Liam. Whitecross finds big laughs and surprising pathos in that relationship, which remains strained today. “Liam clearly always wished he had my talent as a songwriter,” Noel says now. “And there's not a day that I don't wish I could rock a parka like he can.”
As a music comedy, this is up there with Popstar, but with better-defined characters. It's thick with tales of brawls, breakups, stage-walkoffs, busted hotel rooms and astonishing rudeness. The Gallaghers remain hilarious interview subjects, wry and winningly shameless. Noel exhibits more self-awareness than you might expect, marveling that “they sing you words back that you nonsensically wrote at three o'clock in the morning” — but that's not new for him. In '96 concert footage, he introduces “Wonderwall” as “another good song with shit lyrics.” (The film is generous with performance clips, including glimpses of the night Oasis got signed to Creation Records in a Glasgow club and rehearsal footage of the first time the band ever played one of Noel's songs, the pompously awful “All Around the World.”)
Liam, a handsome bruiser, says that he explained to Noel his role in the band this way: “You do that” — meaning write the songs, find the sound, play the guitar — and “I'll just be cool as fuck over it.” Today he seems more hung up on Oasis’ power than its quality, speaking with awed passion about staring down a crowd as the band played behind him. He calls it “the most beautiful feeling in the world — pure control.”
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Supersonic plumbs the emotional life of a band whose biggest failing was, rather than derivativeness, its commitment to not expressing emotion. Lyrics that reveal or even signify were chief among the elements Oasis discarded when strip-mining all previous English rock. Other casualties: wit, ebullience and formal invention. But that didn't matter much when the records were good.
The creators of every biographical account of the lives of celebrities must choose whether to open at the highest high or the lowest low. Whitecross chooses a high with that sold-out Knebworth show at the band's popular and artistic peak. Then, mercifully, he ends there, too, skipping the inevitable third-act crack-up and comedown. Not a word is spoken of the band’s third album, Be Here Now, which stretched 40 minutes of ace tunes over 70 minutes of coked-out CD bloat. The subject of every Oasis song is, above all else, Oasis’ insistence that this is what songs are supposed to sound like. But for all Be Here Now's bombast, a fragile uncertainty marks the lyrics, which again and again concern a failure to communicate: “Say something … Make it sort of mean something.” “I ain't got much to say/But you're gonna miss me when I'm not there.” “There's not a lot to say/About the things caught in my mind.” The lead single, a travesty, was titled “D'You Know What I Mean,” which is hardly a question to ask millions to scream back at you.
By humanizing the Gallaghers, by immersing you in what it felt like to be them, Supersonic retroactively invests Be Here Now with a new sincerity. Turns out, Oasis was finally expressing something personal and painful. Brash and broke, these guys had first insisted that they were rock-and-roll stars, then that they were the world's best rock-and-roll band. Much of the world took their word for it. But at that peak, when the world was theirs, those guys found they had shit-all to say — and that at last became their subject.
Starring Noel Gallagher and Liam Gallagher. Directed by Mat Whitecross. 122 minutes. Rated R. Opens Wednesday, October 26, at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-571-9970; o-cinema.org; and Cinépolis Coconut Grove, 3015 Grand Ave., Miami; 305-446-6843; cinepolisusa.com.