At the 56-minute mark of Supersonic — Mat Whitecross’ documentary about the early ’90s rise of Britpop phenoms Oasis — the film appears to have what I like to call a “Billy Batts moment.” For those that haven’t seen Goodfellas: Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) is a loud-mouth associate of the film’s triptych of gangsters, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Batts winds up being the film’s pivot point. Up until the moment Batts is introduced, Goodfellas charts the rise of its anti-heroes. But after an incident with Batts, the film marks the trio’s downfall.
In Supersonic — which plays nationwide in theaters for one night only on Wednesday — the ostensible Billy Batts pivot point is a gig at L.A.’s famed rock club Whiskey a Go Go, site of Oasis’ first American gig. “Someone had discovered the joys of crystal meth,” Oasis guitarist and primary songwriter Noel Gallagher cracks. He’s referring to his brother, Liam, who was supposedly inhaling crystal off of Oasis’ amplifiers between songs. The show did not go well.
For the first hour of Supersonic, Whitecross checks off the well-worn story points of the Oasis legend. Liam formed the band in 1991, and Noel joined soon after. Two working-class lads who grew up without a father, the brothers formed an uneasy symbiotic relationship: Liam provided the swagger and vocal snarl, and Noel supplied the songs and the vision. There were also dudes named Bonehead and Guigsy. But the focal point was always Liam and Noel. Within a few years, Oasis would write, record, and release the songs that made them superstars: “Live Forever,” “Wonderwall,” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”
This all feels a little familiar in the first half of Supersonic. Oasis’ story has already been told in various magazine profiles, books, documentaries, and Behind the Music specials. At least Whitecross has the benefit of access to the most important characters, including Liam, Noel, Bonehead, record producer Owen Morris, long-time band associate Mark Coyle, and the Gallaghers’ mother, Peggy. Similar to the 2015 Amy Whitehouse documentary Amy — that film’s director and producer are listed as executive producers of Supersonic — the interviewees are kept off-camera in order to emphasize archival clips of Oasis’ early days. Some of the footage, including a pivotal gig in Glasgow that helped Oasis land a record deal, will be of particular interest to super-fans, no matter how ordinary Oasis sounded before lightning struck.
As anyone who loves Oasis knows — and I’ve loved Oasis since I was a 16-year-old anglophile hooked on its world-beating debut, Definitely Maybe — the band’s fall was just as spectacular as its rise. Oasis’ flameout was marked by all of the essential rock-star elements: drug abuse, in-fighting, inflated egos, drug abuse, millions of misspent dollars, drug abuse, and an epic, semi-disastrous album that exhausted the public’s goodwill. While Oasis didn’t falter immediately after that fateful night at the Whiskey — the stateside breakthrough of Oasis’ second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, was still one year away — the seeds of the band’s self-destruction were sown that day.
However, the “downward spiral” part of Oasis’ history is conspicuously absent from Supersonic. This film doesn’t have a “Billy Batts moment,” because it doesn’t delve into Oasis’ decline at all. Instead, Supersonic ends where it begins, depicting Oasis’ ultimate moment of triumph in 1996 at Knebworth, the U.K. venue where Oasis played for 250,000 fans over two sold-out nights.
Over footage of an endless sea of surging humanity, Bonehead articulates what seems to be the thesis of Supersonic –perhaps Oasis would’ve been better off breaking up right there and then, when it was still on top.
No doubt plenty of Oasis fans believe that. But in terms of storytelling, reducing the Oasis saga down to simply a tale of triumph ultimately feels a little unsatisfying. For those of us who continued to love Oasis even after its moment passed, what made the band interesting wasn’t just its inspiring rags-to-riches story, but also the many failures the band encountered (and successfully navigated) for more than a decade after Knebworth. Lots of rock ‘n’ roll bands have come from nowhere to achieve mass stardom. But few groups have had as many entertaining debacles as Oasis, and endured (for a while, anyway, until the band’s break-up in 2009).
Going into Supersonic, I was anticipating the arena-rock version of Dig!, a film that would hilariously recount the many of trainwrecks of Oasis’ career while also paying tribute to all of the elements — the attitude, the recklessness, the sibling rivalry, the great songs — that made them so fun to follow for 15 years. Supersonic gets about 60 percent of the way there, but leaves a frustrating amount of gold on the table. While the film has good material on the Whiskey gig and a famously raucous encounter on an Amsterdam ferry that garnered the band some of its earliest tabloid headlines, Oasis’ bad behavior isn’t explored as fully as it could’ve been (and has been in other documentaries). Then there are the subjects that aren’t broached at all: the rivalry with Blur, Noel’s dalliances with Tony Blair, and anything that happened after 1996.
What’s odd is that Supersonic wasn’t intended to be a straight whitewash. Rather, it seems that the decision to leave out the dirtiest (and in my view most fascinating) parts of the Oasis story was a misguided attempt to make the film more palatable for viewers. “It feels like the most interesting point in any bands life is the first three years,” Whitecross recently told Esquire.
When it comes to Oasis, I think that’s plainly wrong, and I suspect that Noel and Liam Gallagher might agree, even if they are credited as Supersonic‘s executive producers. Neither brother has ever been reluctant to talk candidly about Oasis’ low points. In fact, concurrent with Supersonic‘s release, Noel has been happy to dish about the most famous failure of Oasis’ career, 1997’s Be Here Now, in light of the album’s recent three-disc reissue.
Noel has even pitched a sequel to Supersonic. “We could do the downfall of Oasis, you know, which would be equally as f*cking entertaining, if not better,” he told Esquire. But until there’s a sequel, we’re left with an officially sanctioned film that feels incomplete.
Contrary to what Supersonic will have you believe, Oasis did not ride affably into the sunset after Knebworth. Instead, they made an album that Noel later described (in the still-definitive 2003 doc, Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Britpop) as “the sound of a bunch of guys on coke, in the studio, not giving a f*ck.” Emboldened by the worldwide success of the first two Oasis albums — and, as Noel suggests, a few barrels of Bolivian marching powder — the band set out to make the greatest album of all-time with Be Here Now. But greatness can’t be preordained, so Oasis settled for more attainable distinctions like “loudest” and “longest.”
The lore of Be Here Now is rich with absurdity. Oasis started the album at Abbey Road, but were kicked out for playing too loud. They spent a small fortune to record a nine-minute “Hey Jude”-style epic called “All Around the World” that still stands as one of Oasis’ worst songs. Noel Gallagher reportedly recorded 30 guitar parts for “My Big Mouth,” and at least 20 of them seem to be the identical part. Then, the surest sign that Oasis was out of control: Johnny Depp was invited to lay down slide guitar for “Fade In-Out.”
At the risk of overstating the influence of blow on Be Here Now, it truly does seem like an album that makes sense only after your brain and ears have been blown out by narcotics. The mix is all high-end treble and a near non-existent bottom end. Be Here Now actually sounds like cocaine, or an endless conversation with a cokehead — the songs are packed with lots of noise and scattered phrases that make absolutely no literal sense.
Take the opening stanza from the thoroughly ridiculous “Magic Pie”:
An extraordinary guy
Can never have an ordinary day
He might live the long goodbye
But that is not for me to say
I dig his friends I dig his shoes
He is just a child with nothing to lose
In their minds, their minds
How does one “live the long goodbye”? I don’t know. I don’t care! Turn it up! Here’s another line! I said turn it up! Isn’t this the greatest f*cking song you ever heard? Man, I wish someone would turn this up! What were we talking about again?!
As a hardcore Oasis fan, I bought Be Here Now the day it came out, and listened to nothing else for at least a week. I had been primed by the first single (and the album’s best song), “D’You Know What I Mean,” a bombastic call-to-arms that reimagined Oasis as a band of huns poised to recruit an army of followers to assist in plundering the whole world. The music video, which features the band playing amid bombed-out buildings after making a grandiose entrance via helicopter, underscored the song’s Wagnerian vibe.
A few days after the album dropped, Princess Diana died in a car crash while trying to escape the paparazzi, so I listened to Be Here Now in my dorm room while watching the news coverage on mute. Conjuring a more on-the-nose symbol for the end of Oasis’ glory days is not possible.
For a while, I convinced myself that Be Here Now was incredible because, after looking forward to it for so long, acknowledging my disappointment would’ve been too painful. But within a few years Noel Gallagher was already slagging it. “There’s no bass to it at all,” he says in Live Forever. “And all of the songs are really long, and all the lyrics are shit, and for every millisecond Liam is not saying a word, there’s a f*cking guitar riff in there.” That about sums it up.
Recently, I’ve come back around on Be Here Now, and learned to love it because it’s excessive. Oasis, meanwhile, has set about re-contextualizing Be Here Now as a collection of solid tunes undone by overwrought production. The Be Here Now reissue packages the album with B-sides (including “The Fame,” a bawdy glam-rock gem that provides more insight into Oasis’ backstage life in four minutes than Supersonic does in two hours) and scores of demos that scale back the sonic dross.
I’m among the small minority of Oasis fans that’s interested in hearing the “Live at Bonehead’s Outtake” version of “Stand By Me,” but even I must admit that giving the box-set treatment to any already wearying album inevitably induces tedium. The focus on pared-down versions of Be Here Now‘s anthems also seems strangely off. Be Here Now was never meant to sound so modest. While the demos are nice, they aren’t nearly fookin mega enough to suit the spirit of the material. (The worst thing I can say about the expanded edition is that it will never seem loud enough if you listen to it on coke.) While it’s intriguing to note how little the final versions differ from Noel’s complete-sounding demos, Be Here Now is best appreciated as a balls-out exercise in gonzo vulgarity, like Apocalypse Now if Vietnam had been supplanted by Damon Albarn.
Just for fun, let’s imagine a more appropriate box set for Be Here Now. It would have to be at least 10 discs.
1. Original 1997 version
2. Remastered 2016 version
3. All Treble/No Bass “Cokehead” Album mix
4. B-Sides and Live Versions
5. B-Sides and Live Versions (Twice As Loud Mix)
6. 80 minutes of Unused Helicopter Sounds for “D’You Know What I Mean”
7. All of the Guitar Overdubs for “My Big Mouth”
8. All of Johnny Depp’s Slide Guitar Warm-Ups for “Fade In-Out”
9. The Unedited Codas for “All Around The World”
10. Bonus EP of “Sniffing” Sounds
Perhaps I’m approaching these retrospectives dedicated to one of my favorite boyhood bands the wrong way. Both Supersonic and Be Here Now aren’t really directed at people like me, who were around to witness these events as they happened. They’re more concerned with myth-making for younger generations, removing the tarnish from the Oasis brand so that it might live on.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but Supersonic feels like a preamble to an oft-dismissed (but likely inevitable) reunion tour for the Gallagher brothers. While they weren’t literally in the same room at any point when the film was made, Supersonic makes it seems as if Liam and Noel are having a conversation. They’re even civil toward each other. (“Not a day goes by where I don’t wish I could rock a parka like Liam,” Noel admits.) Should Supersonic re-ignite interest in Oasis’ back catalogue, how far off can a Coachella headline slot really be?
Still, if Supersonic told the whole story, and embraced the glory and the silliness of Oasis, I’d wager that it would make Oasis seem more mythic, not less. After all, who doesn’t like a good dinosaur story? Given how pared-down rock ‘n’ roll feels in 2016, it’s the bloat of Oasis that seems most romantic now.