Oasis Knebworth 1996
2022, NR, 110 min. Directed by Jake Scott.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 13, 2022
There are great gigs, and then there are important gigs. Concerts whose wall of sound echoes long after the last chord has subsided, the speaker stacks have been unplugged, and the staff have chucked out the last bag of rubbish. The Beatles at Shea Stadium. The Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. Woodstock. Add on to that list the two night stand at England's historic Knebworth Park, headlined by Oasis. Well, headlined is the wrong word. There was a bunch of other bands, and the Gallagher brothers' unstoppable, sinewy, arrogant, brilliant summation of British pop culture. Most other great gigs are a turning point but those two shows - August 10th and 11th, 1996 - were an absolute statement, when over a quarter million British music fans gathered together to celebrate a band that had re-established rock and roll's working class roots.
Oasis Knebworth 1996 isn't just a concert movie, although there is an accompanying live album pulling together the best version of their already-breathtaking 20-song setlist. It's a recounting of the moment, of a time that seems alarmingly distant (getting up in the middle of the night to go to the record store to buy physical tickets? What heathen chemistry is this?) but also disarmingly immediate. In 1996, Oasis were only two albums into their career, but Liam (the surly and brilliant front man) and big brother Noel (an alchemist of plagiarism, shamelessly transforming already brilliant tracks into new gold), and their three pals - Guigsy, Bonehead, and Whitey - outsold Genesis, Queen, and Led Zeppelin when they played the stately manor's rolling lawns. (The record was only broken in 2003 when Oasis fan Robbie Williams played for three nights to a total of 360,000 fans, and there's a big argument that Oasis would have beaten that if they'd tried, considering that 2% of the British population tried to buy tickets).
Assembling a massive amount of concert footage, backstage and rehearsal filming, home movies, newsreels, and a few small re-enactments, director Jake Scott threads the two nights together through interviews with band and fans. Having directed the video for Oasis' "Morning Glory" single, Scott's arguably the perfect choice to distill the meaning of those nights. His video was quintessential Oasis: five lads rocking out in a block of flats, high, stoned, brilliant, while the world came knocking at their door.
Oasis Knebworth 1996 feels like a transatlantic cousin to Questlove's Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), in that both films recall both how great those shows were, and how great it was to be at those shows. In the footage, the band were never better - as Noel notes, Liam's voice was never better, a begrudging compliment considering their sibling dissonance meant the band imploded in 2009. Just as potent was Noel's guitar, channeling Duane Eddy, Steve Jones, Peter Green, as well as his oft-stated influences of Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend.
But their story is interwoven with that of the audience, the 20-somethings who saw themselves reflected in (as Noel puts it) five kids from two council estates. Scott subtly weaves those stories together by having every talking head be simply a voice, unified in their belief that this weekend was vital, an affirmation that it was OK to be young and broke. After the curse of Thatcherism, there was the glittering dawn of the New Labour administration, of Cool Britannia, of Brit Pop. It didn't matter that it dissolved distressingly quickly. As Scott, the Gallaghers, and all those random fans sing in chorus, that it happened at all was enough. Oasis made people want to claim they were from Manchester, a city that had spent decades synonymous with crime, drugs, and violence. They changed how a generation of young British people, especially those from the politically and economically beleaguered North, saw themselves. And they did it while playing some of the most effortlessly brilliant rock songs of the decade. Seriously, what other band would have the audacity to throw the soaring sing-along of "Acquiesce" out there as a B-side?
"This is history," as Liam bragged on night two. Fucking right, our kid.