When we first see the star of Crock Of Gold – A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, the instinct is to feel sad. He looks ravaged by the excesses of his 62 years, wheelchair bound and pale.
However, one of the first preconceptions this documentary smashes is the idea that the singer/songwriter is a tragic figure. “I think it was because I was born on Christmas Day that I’ve been so lucky” he says early on. “I thank Christ for that”.
Directed by Julien Temple, who filmed the silhouetted Sex Pistols in 2000’s The Filth and The Fury, takes a similarly irreverent look at the man at the front of Irish folk band The Pogues. MacGowan mostly narrates his life (with subtitles), talking about growing up in Tipperary in Ireland before reluctantly moving to England aged six.
The spark that created his career was his intense national pride, being an Irishman growing up in England during the height of The Troubles. It’s a dynamic that one of his contemporaries gave birth to his music career, arguing that The Pogues could only have come from the diaspora.
As an interview subject, MacGowan is fascinating. Offering a hand-written apology to anybody whom he has offended in the credits, he’s a man of strong views but striking sensitivity. He talks eloquently about mental breakdowns, politics, and his need to enjoy life to its fullest. Friend Johnny Depp (who is credited as “presenting” this film) notes how make the mistake of assuming years of drinking have eroded his memory. Whereas mainstream eyes might view him as a town drunk figure of fun to be occasionally trotted out on talk shows, Temple shows him to be a thinker with passionate takes on everything from W.B. Yeats to the national football team.
He talks about his drinking matter-of-factly, aware of the toll it is taking and accepting it as a part of living the life he chooses. In that sense, his wife Victoria Mary Clarke argues that his reputation for having a death wish is unearned. He loves life, perhaps a little bit too much.
In addition to the singer, there are some interesting figures who come for a chat or a drink through new and old interview segments. His sister, singer and journalist Siobhan McGowan, offers a front row perspective of the excesses of his teens, particularly an animated retelling of a bad acid trip. It’s a mixture of concern and pride, acknowledging that his self-destructive elements and musical genius are part of the same package.
Elsewhere he has a prickly conversation with Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, and a more jovial exchange with Depp where they joke about being unable to stay awake through The Pirates of The Caribbean movies. What’s most fascinating to watch are the segments with MacGowan and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. The two are like father and son, with Adams reminiscing about sending messages to Tony Blair before sternly telling MacGowan “you’ve got to write more songs, there’s no excuse”.
With Christmas around the corner, it’s also an apt time to look into the life of the author of one of its most celebrated ballads – The Pogues’ duet with Kirsty MacColl, Fairytale of New York. The film only briefly looks at the song’s success and the pressures that followed, with the singer becoming disillusioned with the commercial direction the band was taking until his firing from The Pogues in the early 90s. The rest of the time, it’s referred to ominously as “Fairytale” by family and friends, as they talk about how hitting the big time affected his behaviour.
Like everything in the film, MacGowan has very deep and conflicting views on the song. He insists he hates it, but emotionally recalls how he believed it was the late MacColl who made the song what it was, and how he couldn’t listen to it for a time after her death in 2000.
Far from a lament to a troubled talent, Crock of Gold is a celebration of a unique human who is truly beloved by millions.
Temple may centre on MacGowan’s charisma, but makes sure you see the faces of the crowds, belting out his songs with the passion of a national anthem as they clutch banners and flags with tears in their eyes. Regardless of what his path may have done to him, it’s hard not to admire that legacy.
Crock of Gold: A Few rounds with Shane MacGowan – In cinemas on Dec 4th / Available on DVD & Digital from Dec 7th