Live Forever Review
Britpop - doesn't just the mention of the word recall the summer of 1995, when the Oasis vs Blur, Roll With It vs Country House, Manchester vs London, North vs South battle of the bands, songs, cities and regions was of such importance that it was the lead story on the BBC evening news. The battle was driven on by the NME, office arguments, release dates being shifted and public spats between the two bands, which culminated in an edition of Top Of The Pops with Roll With It at number two in the charts leaving Blur as the winner in that round, bettering its competition by 274,000 sales to 216,000. The media were in a frenzy and Blur's bassist, Alex James took to declaring, "It's not Blur versus Oasis, it's Blur and Oasis versus the world". For a few short weeks, the pop charts, the gang you were in and the colours you wore were all that mattered...like being fifteen all over again.
Released earlier this year, Live Forever is John Dower's examination of the short time in which a small number of bands formed a musical movement, which the tabloid press dubbed Britpop. The film begins by connecting early-nineties pop music, the tail end of the Thatcher government and the spread of Ecstasy amongst young men, whose interests changed from fighting on the terraces, Benson & Hedges and Stella to dancing all night, skunk and bottled water. As Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street and club culture spilled out in the streets, British youth reclaimed their charts with a burst of rock music from Blur, Oasis, Suede, Massive Attack and Pulp, amongst others, and convinced themselves that the country could be bent to their will, such that Britain, as the millennium approached, could hold its head high and party. Celebrating the years in which the revival in British rock/pop chased dour American rock out of the charts, Live Forever looks back at Britpop, those who made it happen and the revitalising effect it had on the nation that gave birth to it.
If there is a star at the centre of Live Forever, it is Damon Albarn of Blur, whose decision to move the release of Country House back two weeks to coincide with the issuing of Oasis' Roll With It provided Britpop's most memorable moment. Within their music, recorded over their first five albums, Blur both defined and reflected how British culture changed between 1990 and 1997 - there at the beginning and also at the end - yet both points in time are remarkably similar.
Given that Dower begins Live Forever with an arbitrary connection between politics and music, following footage of the Poll Tax riots in central London with The Stone Roses gig at Spike Island, after which the band effectively disappeared, it's clear what point the film is going to make. That this is followed, however, by Blur capitalising on the gap left by their predecessors with the post-baggy She's So High and There's No Other Way, drugs-content and free of political ambition, betrays Dower's ambition. Indeed, looking only at the music, over the Pop Scene EP and the albums that followed - Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and Blur, whose titles alone reflect the feelings of the band at the times they were made - Blur rejected Americana, promoted the Britishness of Sunday afternoon roasts, greyhound racing at Walthamstow and suburban sex parties before throwing Britpop away in return for the embracing of lo-fi US rock, which indicates as much as anything else the contradictory and apolitical nature of Britpop.
That Blur did move on from Britpop is no surprise - it is in the nature of bands to do so - but that it occurred immediately after the feud with Oasis is. This latter band, whose guitarist and main songwriter was still a guitar roadie for Madchester hangers-on The Inspiral Carpets at the time Blur's debut single was released, were certainly more the more commercially successful Britpop act but where Oasis swatted away the battle in the charts with endless confidence, Blur never quite recovered. Where Live Forever is an honest document of the Britpop years is in capturing this difference between the two - Damon Albarn is a prickly and defensive interviewee, attempting jokes that never quite work and analysis that seems half-formed. On the other hand, Noel Gallagher is funny and charming, admitting his mistakes, lauding his successes and honestly appraising his band's first three albums, declaring Definitely Maybe as his personal favourite. That one avoids any mention of the Country House vs Roll With It feud and one laughs heartily at the memory should tell you all you need to know as regards how Britpop is remembered.
In seeing Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher as the main protagonists of the piece, Jarvis Cocker from Pulp (scored by the magnificent title track from This Is Hardcore) and Robert del Naja, also known as 3D, from Massive Attack are the most interesting in the film, with both adopting the role of an outsider maintaining a distance between their actions and that of Albarn and Gallagher. Otherwise, Ozwald Boateng, Toby Young, John Savage and John Brown offer commentaries on the events of the mid-nineties from their respective points of view, with Savage generally proving to be the most interesting, if slightly befuddled at times, which leads to a consideration that he might not actually know who it is he is talking about. Special mention must go, however, to Liam Gallagher who concludes that his androgynous quality exists out a belief that he's a pretty boy who keeps his hair neat.
The main problem that exists in the film is one of a deceit that continues to be perpetuated despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. Live Forever upholds the notion that Britpop represented a social revolution that not only knocked grungy American rock out of the UK charts but which also removed the Conservative party from the Government after eighteen years of power, replacing it with Tony Blair's more rock-friendly Labour party, whose election was scored to D-Ream's Things Can Only Get Better. Despite Blur and Oasis songs having only slightly more political content than the average S Club Junior's track, Live Forever is content to connect pop and politics in ways that not even Red Wedge could have conceived in its more fanciful moments. The film's main failing in doing so is in not challenging those interviewees, such as Louise Wener from Sleeper, who are keen on retrospectively connecting their indie also-rans to a larger political change within the country. In spite of the footage of Noel Gallagher attending a party at Downing St and of Tony Blair holding a Fender Strat to recall his days in Ugly Rumours, Britpop's only aspiration to politics and the Labour party was in being associated with a winner. It is to Robert del Naja's credit that he appears to take the view that it was only ever about the music, although the distance between London and his Bristol home may have been an influencing factor in this.
Britpop, as with many things in life, lasted as long as it needed to do. When its purpose was served many of the acts moved on and that they did so gracefully is something to be admired. Looking back, it's best that they did as none would really have stood a chance against what came next - five young women nicknamed Posh, Sporty, Ginger, Scary and Baby waiting in the wings with a song called Wannabe...
Live Forever has been anamorphically presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and looks as one would expect a recent documentary to look - clean yet static. The footage was originally shot on Super 16, which works well - the nighttime shots in Bristol, home to Massive Attack, are suitably murky, with the bedsit footage in Jarvis Cocker's Sheffield being melancholy in a way that is fitting to the interviewee, which is all one can really ask of a documentary. Given the film stock on which the movie has been captured, the picture is slightly grainy but it captures the streets and suburbs of Britain better than many other documentaries have done, with its greatest moments recalling Edward Mirzoeff's documentaries for the BBC.
Live Forever has been transferred with its original stereo soundtrack intact, which sounds fine and likely to be better suited to the amount of music on offer than a 5.1 remix of many of the tracks. The audio track on the main feature is consistent and clean, with the music sounding wonderful but the volume on a number of the bonus features does vary from chapter to chapter.
Live Forever, being a documentary, was unlikely to be presented with a further making-of but what has been provided does demonstrate an interest in presenting a complete a package as possible:
Additional Interviews (1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This section contains a number of interviews that were cut from the main feature, principally for time but also for the fact that a number of them deviate from the main thrust of the film:
- Damon Albarn (5m36s, 4x Chapters)
- Jarvis Cocker (3m36s, 3x Chapters)
- Damien Hirst (3m49s, 5x Chapters)
- 3D (4m49s, 4x Chapters)
- Noel Gallagher (9m28s, 6x Chapters)
- Liam Gallagher (7m46s, 8x Chapters)
- Wonderwall (5m06s, 4x Chapters)
- John Savage (16m45s, 6x Chapters)
These interviews are a mix of the odd, the interesting and the irreverent, going from Damon Albarn playing a ukulele in a deserted pub, John Savage discussing the post-Britpop mod revival to Liam Gallagher trying to explain why he walks as he does, which is something to do with being born in Manchester, long arms and big coats, it would seem. Subtitles have not been provided on any of these interviews.
Wonderwall Video Diary (30m40s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Beginning with a warning that the camera work in this extra deteriorates accompanied by irritating giggling due to 'cabin fever' this tracks Oasis tribute band, Wonderwall, on a trip from Lancashire down to London to play at the premiere of Live Forever. Said camera work begins to appear shortly after the halfway mark as Wonderwall muck around on a beach, shortly before they get thrown out of the hotel in which they're staying...such dedication from a tribute band to their influence can only be admired.
Audio Commentary: Featuring producer John Batsek and director John Dower, neither of whom take themselves awfully seriously, this is an entertaining commentary with a large amount of background detail on the shoot, the interviews and the reaction of the interviewees to the film.
Trailer (2m01s, 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): As trailers go, this is a great example, containing a sufficient number of highlights from the main feature to entice any likely viewers but doing so in such a way as to complement the design of the main feature.
Britpop will forever be associated with an overnight flight I took from Dallas to London before which I picked up the London Swings issue of Vanity Fair. Given that it was purchased in the US, there was a different cover to that offered in the UK, replacing Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher snuggled under a Union Jack quilt with a more US-centric alternative but the text was there. Sitting on the flight, I got talking to a small group of twentysomething Americans, who couldn't sleep either, o explain who Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede actually were. They had heard the names, knew of the chart feud and heard about 'that Jarvis guy with Michael Jackson' but wanted to know about the music. Who knows whether they ever really got it upon their arrival in London but there was a sense that British rock was having an impact west of Ireland.
Live Forever is an entertaining documentary yet ends with a note of sadness. As John Savage notes, music in the UK swings back and forth between British and American influences and 1997, despite the social, political and cultural optimism earlier in the decade, saw Blur embracing US rock, the incoming Labour government committing to Conservative spending plans and the death of Princess Diana in a Parisian underpass. That Elton John returned to the charts, Chris de Burgh busked outside Althrop House having declared himself Diana's favourite musician and Britpop was replaced by the achingly dull Paul Weller-led, Oasis-supported Mod revival that included the dire Ocean Colour Scene, it's really no wonder that the Spice Girls and All Saints were embraced like lost relatives upon their arrival in the charts.
Yet, despite such an ending, Live Forever shows that each band has found the place where they belong - Noel Gallagher seems happy to have the Morning Glory-inspired madness behind him, Damon Albarn has stripped Blur of a guitarist and is pursuing his band's ever-changing influences and Jarvis Cocker pruned Pulp's fanbase of fair weather fans with This Is Hardcore. In a way, how British it is to have such success, to throw it away and yet still find yourself happy.