Taking Stock Of Britpop

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Sat, 03/01/2003 - 04:19
Live Forever

A new documentary from Oscar-winning producer John Battsek aims to get behind the Britpop phenomenon of the Nineties.

While one rock legend analyses the importance of politics and the class system in his band’s success, his brother emphasises the importance of his hairstyle. Welcome to the world of Noel and Liam Gallagher, the driving force between Oasis, arguably the most important British pop group since the Beatles and stars of a new feature documentary on the phenomena of Britpop and Cool Britannia that helped define the 1990s in Britain. 

The latest in a growing number of feature-length cinema documentaries, Live Forever was produced by John Battsek, who won an Oscar for One Day in September, a brilliant, but rather grim examination of the terrorist killings at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The new film could not be more different in tone. It attempts to examine the cultural context of Britpop and links with Tony Blair and New Labour, but as writer-director John Dower admits the end-result plays more like a comedy at times.

Liam Gallagher seems not so much like a left-over from Britpop as a survivor from the legendary mock rock doc This is Spinal Tap, the stereotype taken to a new level. "You’ve gotta have a decent haircut if you’re the frontman of a band," he says, which is as close as he gets to analysing his success. 

Androginwhat? 

He struggles to deal with the question of whether his appeal is androgynous, because he does not know what the word means, he claims to have forgotten most of what happened when the band were at their peak, and, while others despair at the state of the pop scene today, Liam enthuses about a great new group he has heard - S Club Juniors. 

"I know there’s a very commonly held view that he’s just a moron," says Dower, with just a hint of a smile, "but I think he works on many more levels than that." 

Then there is Noel, the one with the monobrow, articulate, intelligent, interviewed separately, and yet forever saying the very opposite of Liam. He claims that, when he first saw "Junior S Club 7" in an adjoining studio, he thought it must be an outing from a special needs school. Noel recalls a time when his often estranged brother started speaking with a Scouse accent and insisting on being called John (which is his middle name, though that is not made clear in the film).

If Noel had realised Oasis were making history he would have gone to bed earlier and worn a better outfit, he says. The difference is that when he says it, he is obviously joking. "Still people have this image of him being a sort of dour Mancunian and I think he’s a very sharp, funny guy," says Dower, "and I think that does come across in the film." 

Shallow rock 

Live Forever was inspired by the absence of films or television that did anything other than repackage old pop music with a dash of nostalgia. Its starting point was that the Eighties had been "crap", musically and politically, and the Nineties were a fresh dawn. But the film was only ever going to happen if Battsek and Dower could secure interviews with the leaders of Oasis, Blur and Pulp, whom they regarded as the "Big Three". 

"I knew that the process of trying to get all of these people to co-operate and be in the film was going to take a long time and so it was just a question of being patient," says Battsek. "Guys like these have no real incentive to be in a film like this." 

The Oscar helped. Dower says: "When we finally managed to lure Noel Gallagher into our office, pitching the film basically, he came in and saw the Oscar sitting on the mantelpiece and picked it up and said, ‘You know the only reason I’m talking to you is because you’ve got an Oscar. I’m that f***ing shallow.’" 

Dower and Battsek did interview other bands, but felt the film lost its focus and much of the footage was dumped. The Gallaghers would be a brilliant comic invention, except they are real. Toss in Blur’s slightly bitter frontman Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp, who comes over like a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, just grateful to have survived, and you have the sort of characters scriptwriters dream about creating. 

Cool Britannia 

Live Forever looks at how the media manufactured a "battle of the bands" between Oasis and Blur, with the former representing the working classes and the latter a safer, more middle-class option, though Albarn does his best to play up his proletarian roots. 

It also examines the way New Labour jumped on the Britpop bandwagon, culminating in Tony and Noel sipping champagne together at a celebrity reception at No 10. But it all turned sour. Albarn suggests they were taken for a ride by New Labour and dumped when they had served their purpose. Dower wanted to interview Alistair Campbell, the Labour spin doctor, whose essay on Britpop he describes as "brilliant", but Campbell was "busy". 

If New Labour no longer seems as new and exciting as it did a few years ago, the same is definitely true of British pop, now dominated by a Big Three of Robbie, Will and Gareth. "I think Pop Idol really is the ideal soundtrack for New Labour," says Dower. "It’s kind of music by focus group. I’m sure they love it." 

Liam maintains he knows nothing about politics, adding that he was not invited to the famous celebrity shindig and would not have gone if he had been. "It looks like a shit house anyway," he says.

Filmmaking