When it comes to world famous Irish rock bands, you’d probably be hard pressed to come up with ten. U2 from Dublin is certainly at the top of the heap but who else comes close? Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats, The Cranberries, The Undertones and maybe a few other cult fringe favorites might make the list but the only other contender for the number one spot would have to be The Pogues and they really can’t be classified as simply a rock ‘n’ roll band. Some music critics have classified their music as celtic punk for the way it reinvigorated Irish folk music with an anarchic rebelliousness and politically tinged songs usually performed using traditional instruments like the mandolin, accordion and the tin whistle. Certainly Shane MacGowan, the hellraising singer/songwriter of the group, is as beloved as U2’s Bono and director Julien Temple has put MacGowan front and center in the enthralling documentary portrait, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (2020).
First of all, hardcore fans of The Pogues need to be forewarned that Crock of Gold is focused solely on the rise and fall and rise again of MacGowan’s career and The Pogues are only part of the journey along the way. In fact, there are no interviews with any of the other band members and, per MacGowan’s request, only a handful of trusted friends and family members were approved to interview him or speak about him on camera; even Julien Temple was denied this privilege.
In an interview with The Guardian, Temple admitted that making Crock of Gold was no picnic and MacGowan proved to be as contentious, surly and unpredictable as his reputation. “He’s a difficult guy on a lot of levels, but I guess that’s what makes him great. If you can weather the abuse and stay focused on the film, he’s definitely a subject who deserves respect…I certainly didn’t want to demonise him, I didn’t want to canonise him. There is a sense of tragedy in the life as well as triumph. It’s the contradictions that make the film interesting: the punk public-school boy; the Irishman deeply passionate about Ireland but brought up in London. These are compelling contradictions that make people tick and, in Shane’s case, inform his songs and his lyrics.”
Among the chosen few who do get to share a pint or two with MacGowan or reveal details about his personal and professional life are his mother, father, sister, Gerry Adams of the Sinn Fein political party, Shane’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke, Primal Scream singer/songwriter Bobby Gillespie, who fails to engage MacGowan in conversation, and Johnny Depp, who has been friends with the film’s subject for some 30 plus years and is also one of the producers of the documentary. It also has to be said that Depp’s brief scenes, drinking with MacGowan in a dimly lit pub, are little more than a mutual admiration society lovefest and could easily have been deleted.
With a running time of approximately two hours and four minutes, Crock of Gold has a chronological structure where most of the first hour is taken up not only with MacGowan’s early childhood in both Pembury, Kent and County Tipperary and later London but also delves into a bit of Irish history. Events that happened before MacGowan was even born like The Great Hunger (potato famine) and the Irish War of Independence in 1919 become identity defining touchstones for the singer thanks to the tutelage of IRA family members and relatives. His love-hate relationship with Catholicism is also a recurring conflict after he is indoctrinated in the religion at an early age by an aunt who also taught him to smoke and drink at age six, habits that would lead to more dangerous addictions further down the road.
Temple faces a major challenge in recreating MacGowan’s childhood and adolescence in the first hour because there is a no home movie footage available and hardly any existing MacGowan family photographs, something not uncommon for a poor Irish farming family. To compensate for that, Temple employs animation sequences, vintage photographs from the period from archival collections, dramatic reenactments, newsreel footage and clips from Irish films like Shake Hands with the Devil, John Ford’s The Plow and the Stars and Odd Man Out to create the proper ambiance (You’ll also see clips of MacGowan and The Pogues as wild west outlaws in Alex Cox’s 1987 cult film, Straight to Hell). None of this would work nearly as well as it does without MacGowan serving as his own narrator and Temple has helpfully provided English subtitles since the singer has a tendency to slur his words. He also peppers his observations with abundant profanity and, at one point, proudly states, “Fuck itself is the most popular word in the Irish vocabulary and I was brought up to say it from a very early age.”
The second half of Crock of Gold is much more richly documented with concert clips, TV interviews, music videos and other media as it charts the emergence of MacGowan as a major musical talent who found his calling after witnessing the Sex Pistols in concert. The documentary rushes through the formative years – his first band The Nipple Erectors (renamed The Nips), literary influences like Irish poet James Clarence Mangan and the playwright Brendan Behan and the formation of The Pogues, named after pog mo thoin aka Pogue Mahone, the Gaelic expression for “kiss my arse.”
At the peak of the band’s success with the release of their third album If I Should from Grace with God which yielded the massive hit single, “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan entered a downward career spiral, which he partially blamed on his sudden fame and fortune, and resulted in the musician being fired by his own band in 1991 (They reformed again in 2001). What keeps Crock of Gold from turning into just another rock star crack-up with all the attendant cliches of alcoholism, drug addiction, whoring, brawling, hardcore partying and tabloid scandals is the fact that MacGowan is completely candid and unapologetic about his excesses and missteps. In fact, his later years could be seen as an endorsement for the joys of hedonism which he sees as a lust for life and not a death wish.
Temple’s film seems more like a memorial than a tribute at times yet it seems a miracle that MacGowan is even alive when you consider the physical damage his body has endured. He is now confined to a wheelchair, tends to lean to one side as if in a state of partial paralysis and has a walleyed stare that could be mistaken for catatonia. Temple doesn’t delve into details of the singer’s health but one anecdote is enough to confirm your worst impressions. At the height of his heroin addiction, he almost had his legs amputated because he was injecting the drug into his feet which caused his legs to swell up like balloons.
Still, despite all of his excesses and vices, MacGowan managed to create an amazing body of work between the relentless touring and constant partying. Where did he find the time and the discipline to write so many brilliant songs? This is a man who could pen poetic ballads like “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” fiery rave-ups such as “Boys from Country Hell,” and poignant political anthems like “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six,” co-written with Terry Woods. When asked about his songwriting, MacGowan admits that it flowed more easily if he was drinking but his creative efforts seemed less a matter of professional craftsmanship than some kind of magical alchemy. This unique talent deserted him in later years and his one major regret is losing his muse. One thing he hasn’t lost is a wicked sense of humor although his laugh now sounds like a cross between a hissing snake and air escaping from a punctured tire.
It is the music, of course, that will survive him, distinguished by his magnificently raw, passionate vocal style which comes straight from the heart and soul of Ireland. Whether he is rocking out with “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” or injecting new life into a traditional folk fave like “The Wild Rover,” MacGowan’s voice is unmistakable from any other vocalist. Crock of Gold is packed with bits and pieces of favorite songs being performed in concert or heard on the soundtrack as well as music video excerpts and footage from MacGowan’s 60th birthday party concert tribute which closes the documentary and includes glimpses of Bono, Nick Cave and others performing on stage with Shane. That being said, I don’t think one of MacGowan’s many songs is featured in its entirety in the film. Possibly the longest segment is from a music video of “Fairytale of New York” featuring co-vocalist Kirsty MacColl. Other musical excerpts include “Dark Streets of London,” “Fiesta,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” and “Summer in Siam.”
At this point in his career, director Julien Temple is an expert at crafting immersive, densely layered musical biographies and portraits which began with his first breakout hit in 1980, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which follows hipster entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren as he creates the ideal punk band led by a singer named Johnny Rotten. Temple would return to this subject twenty years later with The Filth and the Fury (2000), the definition film on The Sex Pistols. In addition to directing and producing over 100 music videos including such iconic examples as “My Way” performed by Sid Vicious and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Temple also tried his hand at feature films with more mixed results.
Absolute Beginners (1986), an ambitious musical epic set in 1958 in London, was a major box office flop despite having a cast that included David Bowie, Ray Davies, Sade and other pop superstars. The sci-fi satire Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) featuring Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey as fur-covered aliens had better luck with audiences and has since acquired a cult following. There were also oddities that have fallen through the cracks but probably deserve a look for the eclectic casting alone: Running Out of Luck (1985) with Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Dennis Hopper and Rae Dawn Chong and Bullet (1996), a crime drama with Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody and Tupac Shakur.
To top it off, Temple has also helmed a number of quirky biopics like 2000’s Pandaemonium about a rivalry between poets Samuel Coleridge (Linus Roache) and William Wordsworth (John Hannah) and 1998’s Vigo: A Passion for Life about French filmmaker Jean Vigo, who was an early influence on Temple’s film career. Still, Temple’s music biographies are among the best in that overpopulated genre and Crock of Gold is a fitting tribute to the singer/songwriter who re-energized Irish folk music and broadened its exposure much like The Dubliners did in the 1960s.
Crock of Gold is currently in release at selected theaters across the U.S. and Magnolia Pictures will soon offer streaming options for viewers. Check their website for more information at https://www.magnoliapictures.com/crockofgold
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