They're Both Right: Oasis Doc Director Talks Liam & Noel
Even in the aftermath of an acrimonious breakup, the biggest British rock band since the Beatles check yet another box off in the legendary band to-do list with Oasis: Supersonic. The new documentary, now playing in a limited run in U.S. theaters, is every bit as worthy as some of the greatest rock docs of all time, from Julien Temple's Sex Pistols chronicle The Filth and the Fury to Joe Berlinger and the late Bruce Sinofsky's epic Metallica examination, Some Kind of Monster.
Focused solely on the meteoric rise that saw the scrappy Manchester disciples of Lennon-McCartney, Stone Roses, and the Smiths go from pubs to a pair of historic concerts at Knebworth that saw one in twenty (!) British citizens apply for tickets, Supersonic is as kinetic, transcendental and combustive as the two brothers at the band's center.
The charm and bravado of impossibly charismatic frontman Liam and guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher are on full-display, with occasional moments of revelatory self-examination despite their best efforts at Irish descendent rabble-rouser stoicism, thanks to smartly unique narrative choices of director Mat Whitecross.
Supersonic tells the story of the first two and a half years of Oasis, via vintage video, various television appearances and loads of audio clips, putting the audience right in the center of the action by foregoing the "band guy sits in a hotel room and reminisces" interview shots that have become a staple of the rock-doc genre.
Hopeful rumors of a reunion persistent, even as Noel insists it won't happen and Liam continues to taunt his brother on Twitter. Both brothers are credited as executive producers on Supersonic, the release of which has been the latest source of acrimony between the pair. Noel skipped the premiere; Whitecross has told the press that Liam threw popcorn at the screen whenever his older brother appeared.
Noel has another record with his solo group, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, on the way. Liam is working on his first ever solo effort, following the 2014 dissolution of Beady Eye, the band he cofounded with the rest of the final lineup of Oasis (Gem Archer, Andy Bell, Chris Sharrock) following Noel's exit from Oasis in August, 2009.
I had the chance to speak by phone with Whitecross, a lifelong Oasis super-fan, who will next turn his impressive lens back toward Coldplay, who he has been filming off-and-on since 1996.
My first week on the job as a fulltime staff reporter for MTV News, my office mate, who I'd just met, says, "Hey, I'm supposed to do this interview, but I'm super busy today. Would you mind covering for me? It's with Noel Gallagher." My two favorite bands of all-time are Oasis and Metallica. I asked Noel about Lars Ulrich's serious Oasis fandom.
Mat Whitecross: Yeah! He's been around for a long time, mate. I hung out with him on tour for a bit.
I saw this great photo a couple of years ago from some festival. It was a picture of Noel, Lars, and Bradley Cooper, just chilling together. I saw Cooper at Metallica's San Diego Comic-Con club show. He knew all the words, played air guitar, and sang along. I was very impressed. But yes, meeting Noel was intimidating, but he immediately put me at ease.
Mat Whitecross: The first time I met Noel, I was kind of terrified walking into the room, because he was a huge hero of mine, like you. It was one of those things where I didn't really know what to [expect]. Luckily, he immediately sets you at ease and is very down to earth and very funny.
We never see those typical static interview shots we're accustomed to in documentaries, where somebody is sitting down in a hotel room next to a lamp on an end table or whatever. I'm curious about how you came to make that stylistic choice and the difficulty it must've presented in terms of stringing the movie together and having a clear narrative.
Mat Whitecross: [The decision] came quite early. I didn't really know what the vibe was going to be like going into that room [with Noel]. [British graphic designer] Simon Halfon, who has worked with Oasis for a long time and is one of the producers on the film, approached me. I really didn't know what the project was going to be originally. "Is this a tour film? Are they getting the band back together? What's the vibe?" Simon says, "No, we're going to do a film about Oasis, the band, the legacy of it." He said we could make the film we wanted to make, but I should come in and meet Noel. I said, "This is great! I get to meet him!" I felt like, even if the film never happened, at least I'd get to shake Noel's hand. Then I sit down with him and the first question he asked was, "What's this film you're making?" I looked around at everyone else for the answer and everyone was looking at me. It felt to me that with any band, but particularly with Oasis, it's the first two and a half years that are really revealing and really unique. After that, once you become big, whether it's Led Zeppelin or Metallica or Guns N' Roses or Oasis, it's kind of the same story in a lot of ways. The tunes are different and maybe the chicks are different and the drugs are different, but it's kind of like: you get on the plane, get in the car, you go to the gig, you come out; it becomes similar in some ways.
Whereas those first two to three years, where you're trying to make it, they're really exciting. But particularly with Oasis I thought that the velocity of that rise and ascent was so extreme and it's never really been equaled. We can say The Beatles created that journey, because no one else had done it before then. How do you become a stadium band? They invented the whole concept of it. In some ways you could argue that Oasis kind of finished that. The book ended with that story. Because of the internet, it's not quite possible to create a phenomenon on that scale anymore.
For whatever reason, that's what came out of my mouth. Noel was like, "Hang on a minute, it wasn't two years from the moment we were signed to the moment we stepped out at Knebworth?" I was like, "Honestly, I'll show you the dates if you want. I've done my research." He was like, "Wow. I've been at parties that lasted longer than that."
That was the initial bit, like, "Ok, great, everyone seems on board with that concept." Then his comment: "Look, I just don't want it to be a bunch of grey-haired rockers sitting in armchairs looking back at the good old days. I want it to feel as exciting as it did [then]. It should have the same vibe as the band did in those early years."
The more we talked about it, [I thought] maybe the way to do it is with audio recordings, where we don't have - like you said, somebody sitting in the corner of a hotel room or a studio with that artificial environment - that barrier between you and the past.
As soon as we'd spoken to Noel I realized there was still the big question of the elephant in the room: "So what does Liam say?" The next hurdle was to convince Liam. Suddenly I realized, given the fact we couldn't' interview t hem in the same space, maybe the way to create a conversation was to use this audio technique where one person is speaking to another and we can create this artificial conversation that in some ways would give us more control over it. It could maybe work out to be even more revealing than a real conversation.
Plus, when you get two band people together, that's when you get tomfoolery, or inside jokes, or perhaps one talks and the other doesn't. I prefer to interview people solo vs. in pairs or as a group.
Mat Whitecross: Or perhaps they are drunk or hung over and it's hard to get in there.
To really tell the entire Oasis story, you would need a, like, twenty-eight hour documentary. Super-fans like us would watch that. Like, in some way, it's crazy to watch an Oasis documentary without Gem Archer or Andy Bell, who each spent a decade in the band. But I get it. How did you decide where you'd start and where you'd finish this story?
Mat Whitecross: I'd happily sit through a miniseries on Oasis. Even after deciding to have this film focus on the first two and a half years, the original cut was eight-hours long! There was a lot of stuff we couldn't keep in there. I did interview Gem, because obviously he had been in another Creation Records band. We interviewed him. He was great. I mean, look, what happened after [Knebworth] is fascinating, too. There's definitely another film to be made. Watching this film, some people I'm sure will say, "well, why didn't you take this out so you could include this?" But what do we take out? It's not like there's any repetition.
My absolute favorite moment in the film is when we're watching Liam onstage, doing that quintessentially Liam Gallagher thing, where this massive concert is popping off, tens of thousands are singing the songs, and he's stood there, almost motionless, staring out at them. You have audio of Liam talking, as we're watching this unfold, explaining exactly what's going through his head in those moments. It's utterly captivating. For a few seconds, the viewer becomes Liam.
Mat Whitecross: I loved hearing him [explain] that!
Casual fans and outside observers chalked that stage presence up to arrogance or aloofness, but it's so much more. In the U.S., there are some folks who consider Oasis "that British band from the nineties" or "that band with the brothers who hate each other." That's so reductive.
Mat Whitecross: We talk to some people about the band and it's like they're forgotten what was so important and exciting about the band, what presence Liam and Noel had onstage, and particularly Liam's charisma as a frontman.
I think people tended to write him off, for whatever reason, and I just felt like the way he spoke so passionately about music - it didn't surprise me, but I was really taken aback by the strength and how important it is to him. Similarly the feeling he has on stage, he was so eloquent about whatever it is, whether it's violence in his past or this kind of, whatever is going on inside of him - it's kind of only answered on stage. That was really important to me.
I think often it was a lot of the soap opera around the band and tabloid antics are the parts that get remembered. That's a real shame.
Which brings me to another standout moment, when somebody asks who they're playing for when they're onstage and the answer is: each other.
Mat Whitecross: [Liam] is one of the few people I've met in my life who can say two completely contradictory things in the space of one sentence and still be happy in its truth. "I fucking hate my brother and I love him," or whatever it is. Or he'll be quite humble about himself and then in the same time say he's one of the greatest rock and rollers of all time.
Those two things fit quite comfortably. There was something about the way they talked about each other. "Well actually, if you want to try and analyze it, it's just about the two of us and no one out there will be able to understand what goes on between the two of us." Two weeks later Noel says, "Actually, it's not about us, it's about the fans."
What I like about it is they can throw in all of those ideas, all of these pieces. What is it? Well, it's both. Let's put it all in. That was important for me. You can sew in contradictions. It doesn't mean the film is incoherent, it means all these things are true.
In other words, it reflects real life. It's very relatable that way.
Mat Whitecross: Everyone asks, "Well, who's right?" They're both right. And they're both wrong. They're brothers. They're both wonderful.