Pop music has always been an audiovisual medium, but documentary movies about pop have been rare, and successful ones rarer still. Two problems confront the film-maker wanting to do more than simply record a performance. The most interesting pop subjects are often rich and jaded or inarticulate, and pop criticism seems particularly prone to nostalgia or easy, uncritical myth-making. Live Forever, John Dowey’s entertaining documentary about the rise and fall of Britpop, avoids the first pitfall but never quite escapes the second.
The film starts with the Stone Roses’ massive outdoor Spike Island gig in 1990 and its loose narrative runs to the present day, with classic Britpop albums acting as markers along the route. Live Forever’s central idea and conceit is that the success of Britpop was not only part of a single explosion of subcultural energy which produced films like Trainspotting and artists like Damien Hirst, but that this energy was also linked to a political generation-shift that led ultimately to the New Labour landslide of 1997. The film starts, indeed, with an Alastair Campbell quote from 1996- “At last Britain is exporting pop music again.” The country’s musical fortunes and its political destiny are deeply linked.
Live Forever can assert this, but it can’t neccessarily convince. For a start you have to take on trust the idea that the 1980s Thatcherite politics made for an era of “crap” music – but the 1980s were also the era when dance music began to surge in popularity, leading to changes in culture and leisure way more seismic than anything Britpop achieved. The most successful recent pop movie, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, hinted at a much more convincing linkage of music and politics in the 1980s – Thatcherism’s entrepreneurial manias and war on welfare led to a booming underground of pop entrepreneurs from Anthony Wilson to early rave promoters; a quasi-legal mirror to the Lawson boom. Live Forever leaves dance music out almost entirely, though, giving the film a steady focus at the expense of its arguments. Spike Island was a rave much more than a gig, as the movie’s archive shots of E’d-up attendees suggests. There may well have been a sense of a community being built, but was it the same community Britpop appealed to?
The film suggests that it was. Community is something Live Forever seems very keen on – interviewer after interviewer talks about the music’s appeal to ordinary people,. to a sense of something marvellous happening among ‘the kids’, the construction through pop of a positive energy for change. Jon Savage, who provides articulate commentary throughout the film, remembers crying at an Oasis appearance on Top Of The Pops, it seemed so weighted with meaning. But minutes later the owner of the Atlantic Bar and Grill is remembering his exclusive celebrity clientele, and Oasis are singing “Can I ride with you in your BMW?” One interview is shot in the Good Mixer, a Camden pub which became notorious as a hangout for the Britpop scene elite. The tension between the Spike Island community and the Good Mixer scene runs to the heart of Britpop as a cultural moment – on the one hand, a popular phenomenon that could bring over 100,000 people together for Oasis’ gigs at Knebworth; on the other, a trend whose most memorable moment was a chart battle between Blur and Oasis which swiftly turned into a vicarious class war. Live Forever doesn’t explore these ideas, taking Britpop’s “community” for granted, which means the film comes unstuck somewhat when explaining Britpop’s decline.
What we get instead of analysis is warm-hearted storytelling, and it’s here that Live Forever’s strengths lie. The mix of TV footage, interviews, videos, and contemporary location work keeps the film visually interesting, and the pace of the narrative is brisk but graceful throughout. John Dowey’s interviews with Britpop’s prime movers are the film’s key selling point, though, and these are often marvellous. Dowey talked to almost every key Britpop figure and has winkled anecdotes, insights, and good jokes out of them all – Noel Gallagher’s contributions are particularly funny and shrewd, even when he’s going against the grain of the mostly triumphal story. The interviews are shot with the same lens, with each interviewee placed in a suitable location – Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker in a peeling suburban bedroom, for instance – giving Live Forever its visual consistency, authority and intelligence. The best scenes, though, are often those where the music is allowed to simply play over new location footage, neatly and effectively linking pop with the places that spawn it, and convincingly suggesting that Britpop wasn’t a 60s or 70s revival but a modern response to a modern environment. Oddly, these scenes make the political case better than any of the talking heads, positioning Britpop as a post-Thatcher music, not a pre-Labour one, a product of that odd three or four years when everyone knew the Tories were finished but there was nothing to do but wait for the inevitable to happen, and have a good time with it. It was an unreal political time which suited the unreal time-looped pop the bands were serving up.
Was that pop any cop? The film takes the answer for granted – but I never liked many of the records at the time and I wasn’t expecting to be convinced now. More fool me – the first wave of Britpop hits, in ’94-’95, all sounded rather fine. Smart, brash, confident, hooky – you could do a lot worse as a chart-pop songwriter than listen to “Girls And Boys”, “Common People”, or “Alright”, Top Ten smashes one and all. Even Oasis sound pretty great – on a super-Dolby cinema system you really notice the beat of “Live Forever”, the great cocky slam of the drums co-opting Liam’s voice as another rhythm instrument. It sounds unstoppable. But it stopped.
The final third of Live Forever tracks the dissolve of Britpop into bitching, disillusionment and creative bloat. This makes for a depressing conclusion, even if most of the stars save their best stories for this last lap. The culprits, in order of appearance, seem to be cocaine, Tony Blair, the death of Princess Diana, and Robbie Williams. What becomes apparent is a reluctance to criticise the music, which is unfortunate because the soundtrack continues on its chronological way, providing ample proof that the blame for Britpop’s decline lands heavily on its own shoulders. The missing story in the film is how every one of Britpop’s leading lights blew it or bottled it creatively – having conquered the charts with three-minute pop singles they turned indulgent, contemptuous, or paranoid, and the brave new pop world ended up in the hands of Oasis (by now too big for any movement) and their imitators. Britpop in 1994 might have been playing around with the ideas of nostalgia and Britishness and old pop; post-Britpop in the late 90s took them deadly, dully seriously.
As star after star justifies their sprawling late-90s experiments you suddenly realise that the film has never offered a definition of Britpop, beyond an early suggestion that bands like Blur were appropriating and deploying stereotypes of “Britishness” in their music. What did Blur, Oasis and Pulp actually have in common? They were young, and British, and selling loads of records, but so were the Spice Girls, who are glimpsed once in a ‘Cool Britannia’ photomontage but otherwise ignored here. Their Spiceworld film did the British stereotype thing just as well as any Blur video, too. In the end, Live Forever tells the story lovers of Britpop know already and want to hear again – that the music was a burst of quality between eras of synthesised and manufactured dreck. It makes for a nostalgic, enjoyable film that any Oasis or Blur fan will be more than happy with, but Live Forever’s failure to think much about the ‘pop’ in Britpop makes it a frustrating experience for a more objective viewer. At the end, after 25 minutes of dark, paranoid, unhappy and overlong songs from the tail-end of the Britpop era, the credits roll to the sound of S Club 7’s “Reach”. It sounds young, lively and happy – just like Britpop.