There was a time when the band Oasis and nostalgia seemed like a contradiction. While certainly inspired by the past, their meteoric 1990s rise was fuelled by songs about feeling young and invincible, with nothing mattering beyond this moment. It captured the spirit of a country propelled by a rare case of self-confidence that peaked in 1996. Britannia was cool; Trainspotting chose life; Football was coming home; and Tony Blair promised us things can only get better.
A quarter of a century on, misty-eyed dads in faded Adidas will convince you that nothing beats that time. It was their Summer of Love, and Knebworth its Woodstock. Riding high on the success of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, Oasis played to 250,000 people over two nights at Knebworth Park, aligning themselves with previous headliners such as Led Zeppelin, Queen, and The Rolling Stones. Around 2.7 per cent of the UK population applied for a ticket, and to this day it retains an aura.
However, nostalgia can often be misleading, and with the Gallagher Brothers now bickering on Twitter in their 50s, does a documentary about that famous gig reveal disappointment, or a legend that lives up to its name?
Oasis Knebworth 96 is a retelling of that gig through original footage and the voices of the people who were there. Promoters, band members, and fans talk us through the build-up, and then both nights are given roughly the same amount of time. The nineties were a time where archiving cultural history was beginning to become more important. Whereas documentaries about famous gigs from the 60s or 70s have to rely on someone bringing an 8mm camera or having a videotape of the broadcast, here the filmmakers have a wealth of material to choose from – Jo Whiley Radio 1 coverage, news interviews, and of course the gig itself filmed in full. It allows the viewer to experience, or relive, the gig in a multi-layered sense.
The piece is directed by Jake Scott, who himself had a breakthrough in the 90s, directing the video for Oasis’ single Morning Glory, as well as working with R.E.M and Radiohead among others. The son of Ridley, he’s had sporadic success on the big screen with 1999’s Plunkett & Macleane, and more recently the overlooked awards season drama American Woman. He puts together some impressive recreations of unfilmed stories, as interviewees recall waiting for hours on a landline phone for tickets, or hazily making their way home. They feel as authentic as the archive footage.
Wisely, he chooses to tell the story of the weekend from the perspective of the fans. There’s no intellectualising of the moment, just people who were there talking about what it meant to them: gazing at a working-class band who belonged to them, coming together to be part of something remarkable. “You’re making history, remember that”, Noel assures them before breaking into an acoustic version of The Masterplan. A very touching moment is recalled by a Scottish fan who watched the performance with her late brother, who would be diagnosed with cancer just months later.
Of the band, Noel serves as the official spokesperson of how it felt to play to that many people. As with past appearances, he proves an articulate and entertaining narrator. Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs has some sweetly awed comments about being part of it, such as his thoughts seeing the venue prior to fan arrival (“eh, it’s just a field, it’s not that big”). Liam is noticeable by his absence, appearing only at the end in a small snippet that sounds like someone coerced him into a statement. He was a lively part of many previous Britpop documentaries, so it seems like a missed opportunity. In the context of the film, however, it allows us to view who he was at his peak – the swaggering figurehead of The Good Ship Oasis, snarling in a bright white coat to a sea of people who adore him. Whatever has come before or since, it’s striking to see the power he has in that moment.
Documentaries such as Supersonic and Live Forever did a good job of chronicling the era, but Oasis Knebworth 96 is interested in feelings, not facts. It wants to put you in the field with young people having the time of their life, play the tunes you know by heart, and fill you with nostalgia. It’s an hour and fifty minutes of fan service that will be devoured by those who were there, and those who wished they were.
Oasis Knebworth 96 is in cinemas from 23rd September.