This may not be the best UK film of the year, but for anyone who was alive in the late 1960s/early 1970s in London it will probably be the most enjoyable. In fact, I’d say that the first 40 mins of the film is the best British Cinema of the last few years and even if you’ve never heard of Dr. Feelgood, you should get a lot from it.
Julien Temple is famous as a maker of both fictional and non-fictional films about the UK music scene. This film is his documentary about Dr. Feelgood who stormed out of Canvey Island to take on the world in 1972. For those outside the UK, I should explain that Canvey Island is an island in the Thames Estuary, famous for a Shell Oil Refinery, a tacky seafront and beach – and Dr. Feelgood. As the film points out several times there are some uncanny parallels between the island and the Mississippi Delta region. From my few forays into deepest Essex I can attest to the unworldly atmosphere of the region and it isn’t so surprising that two such charismatic (and slightly deranged) characters as Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux should be born there.
All four members of the band lived within a few streets of each other and the film scores big points by using the dramatic footage of the 1953 floods which caused havoc in low-lying areas across all the coastal regions of Northern Europe. What comes across very strongly is that these were absolutely typical English lower middle-class kids who found themselves growing up in a distinct environment at a special time. The sense of being slightly odd compared to kids of the same age in suburban London perhaps explains why they were into proper R & B when far too much of British youth was wasting its time with prog rock. This meant that the Feelgoods were at home in the pub rock scene of the early 1970s and could be seen as a form of ‘pre-punk’.
Temple’s strategy is to build the film around the still riveting presence of Wilko Johnson, now without the hair and marginally less manic, but still highly entertaining. The other two band members fill in with details and Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994, appears in archive footage and through the memories of his American wife and his sparky mother. ‘Witness statements’ are then mixed with lots of archive footage from the lads’ childhoods, from performances by the band and by some added dramatic reconstructions. Finally and most controversially, there is a very liberal use of archive footage from British film and television series of the 1940s and 1950s. I’m not sure what to make of this. In small doses it is very interesting – working to dispel the ideas that nothing happened in British Cinema in that period and providing an interesting commentary on the kind of world the lads were coming from. But I did feel (as have others, I notice) that there is too much of it and sometimes it just becomes silly. The stories about Wilko Johnson as a secondary school teacher are weird and wonderful enough without illustrations from the TV series Whacko! from the 1950s. The main films that are used include the They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Brighton Rock (1949), The Criminal (1960), Payroll (1961) and Robbery (1967). I’m not sure why the Feelgoods have to be linked to gangsters and spivs, but at least it gives the documentary a different feel – a gritty texture. I confess that I’ve not watched a Julien Temple film all the way through before, but I think his instincts are generally right on this one.
I don’t remember going to see the Feelgoods (but I might have done) but I remember them well nonetheless. I’m surprised that they weren’t better known. Can somebody please do a similar job on the Kursaal Flyers now?