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The British pop music scene has been a roller coaster of highs and lows ever since the four lads from Liverpool took American R&B and turned it into rock n' roll. In the decades since the Beatles first broke big there have been spikes and lulls, with genuine movements developing (the British contribution to punk, the New Wave of British Metal in the late 70's/early 80's, the pop megatrends of the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams, rave culture.)
According to the film Live Forever, however, the biggest British cultural and musical movement since the Beatles was what Vanity Fair dubbed "Cool Brittannia," the period between the Stone Roses monster gig at Spike Island in 1990 and the release of Oasis' dud album "Be Here Now" in 1997. This timetable is definitely arguable (Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People starts earlier, and some of the bands mentioned in the film are still going strong today) but the idea that British rock bands found a resurgence during that time is definitely correct.
Ever since the Beatles there's been something of a tradition of British bands coming from somewhat depressing blue-collar factory towns, like Sheffield, Gloucester and Manchester. The film starts with a quick montage of mundane images from these towns but anyone who knows anything about this music instantly recognizes the names as the birthplaces of great music. The interviewees in the film cite the mix of a glum upbringing and the appearance of extasy in the rock scene in the early 90's as the inspiration of the Live Forever generation. Ground zero was the Stone Roses festival gig. According to Oasis' Noel Gallagher it was a "shit gig, but fantastic."
Live Forever suggests that this movement really kicked into global high gear with the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, which signaled the end of "grunge" and created a vacuum that Brit-rock filled. This is a neat and pat theory that doesn't really make perfect sense except to point out that Nirvana's music meant a lot to many of the bands featured. It probably sounds good to rock journalists, who fabricate movements like grunge and Cool Brittania in the first place.
Unfortunately much of the film focuses on the manufactured rivalry between Blur and Oasis, a spat that became quite vicious at a certain point. (Although it's not mentioned in the film I can remember an interview where one of Oasis' Gallagher brothers wished that Blur lead singer Damon Albarn would get AIDS and die.) There's not much to say on the matter these days anyway: Albarn practically refuses to discuss it and the brusque Gallaghers have little insight. It seems the rivalry was cooked up as a way to sell more records and just got a little out of hand. It's strange in retrospect considering how different the bands' sounds are. Blur's Duran Duran-esque powerpop (especially on their breakthrough album "Park Life") and Oasis' riff-heavy melody-crazed anthem rock could very well have appealed to different audiences. Ultimately it was Oasis that racked up the bigger sales with their monster album "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?" which one of the journalists interviewed credits as being a tear-inducing moment of Brit culture-pride. Blur, on the other hand, maintained a pretty good cult status throughout the years, although film does seem to create a character arc for that band (and the whole scene) when it juxtaposes their bright and cheery "Park Life" video from 1994 with the much more introverted and depressed "Beetlebum"from 1997. It's not necessarily the full story, since sometimes videos are just videos, but it's effective editing. And in his interviews Albarn does seem to have been left more bitter with his experiences than most.
If there's any aspect of the film that rings false it's the attempt to tie the music movement in with political happenings at the time. The change in culture is compared to the ouster of the conservative Torries like Margaret Thatcher and John Major and the ascension to power of New Labour, led by studly Tony Blair. While this transformation may well have affected the lads in Live Forever has a tough time discerning it from the hard drinking hooligans that make up many of the bands. Still, Noel Gallagher obviously had some affection for Blair and the interplay between culture and politics is sketched out.
Other important bands are given short shrift, but that often seems a way to avoid the issue of why some still have huge fan bases (Radiohead barely merit a mention, Portishead are played briefly). And other musicians interviewed seem outside the scene entirely. 3D of Massive Attack, who released a number of seminal records, distances himself from the Blur/Oasis rift. His music couldn't be more different from theirs anyway. And Jarvis Cocker, the swaggering lead singer of Pulp has the most sober eye, observing the madness of the time with a cold eye. Still, for it's faults, Live Forever is an interesting watch. And the plethora of musical clips makes sure that there's always some meaty beat bouncing along. If it only serves as a menu of great CDs for the uninitiated to seek out, then that's enough.
The anamorphic wide-screen video is acceptable, if grainy and imperfect. The colors are often vibrant and the cinematography is nicely done. But there a general lack of detail to the images.
The Dolby Digital stereo audio is fine. The music sounds pretty good and voices are mostly clear, although subtitles should have been included as some of the accents get a bit thick.
Nothing. Not even a menu (Although this was a review screener, so it's possible that the commercial version will have something, even though Amazon lists nothing.)
An enjoyable documentary, Live Forever doesn't really get under the surface. A lot of time is spent on Oasis and Blur, which is fine, since they were so huge, but other bands get short shrift. And even though the film does make a noble attempt to explore the greater socio-cultural aspects of the era it doesn't fully feel like it adds up. Still, for fans of music it is absolutely worth a look.