Film review: ‘CROCK OF GOLD: A FEW ROUNDS WITH SHANE MCGOWAN’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Cinema-goers would be be pretty optimistic if they expected a documentary about the brilliant but chaotic musician and Pogues frontman, Shane McGowan to be a smooth and straightforward ride, particularly as the director is frequent Sex Pistols documenter, Julien Temple.  A swirling storm of words and images stitched together from interview fragments, concert film, stock footage and even animated fantasy sequences, this documentary still somehow manages to provide a fairly clear picture of MacGowan’s life.

Much of the film explores the forces that shaped or perhaps more accurately misshaped MacGowan and led to the physically damaged but spiritually willing person we see today.  The film reveals his happy but unconventional childhood in Ireland where he learned about Irish music and culture and the IRA from his left leaning parents, aunts and uncles and where he reportedly developed a taste for Guinness at the ripe old age of five.  After his family’s attempt at upward mobility saw him transplanted to London in the 60’s, he began the descent into the maelstrom that would define his life.  Excessive drinking and experimentation with psychedelic drugs saw him so end up in Bedlam asylum as a teenager.  He was released from there straight into the punk scene where he became a familiar face.  He quickly became obsessed with creating music of his own and forged a fierce amalgam of anarchic punk and authentic Irish folk music.  With conviction if not modesty, he said his mission was to save Irish music and the film makes a reasonably convincing case that, with the remarkably successful Pogues, he actually did this.

Accordingly, there’s generous helpings of MacGowan’s music including Pogues classics like ‘Diry Old Town’, ‘Summer in Siam’ and of course ‘Fairy-tale of New York’.  There’s also snippets of his early punk band The Nipple Erectors as well as various traditional Irish music exponents like the Dubliners who inspired him.  Revisiting the Pogues music reminds us what a terrific lyricist MacGowan is with some of the interviewees describing him as a poet worthy of the greats.  MacGowan is clearly a more cerebral figure than the drunken wild man of popular legend and he has immersed himself in Irish literary history.  MacGowan discusses his major literary influences revelling in James Joyce’s disdain for prim and proper English and Flann O’Brien’s gritty post-modern works.

This is no hagiography though, Temple doesn’t ignore MacGowan’s astonishingly self-destructive behaviours which include a hideous descent into heroin addiction which led to his eventual firing from the Pogues.  The film also shines a piercing light on his less appealing personal attributes such as his John Lydon-like contempt for just about everything including some of his own music.  He also clearly does not like being interviewed, frequently and bitterly complaining about the questions asked of him.  The interviewers, who include Johnny Depp (who is a long-time friend and one of the producers) and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie always respond to his grumpy outbursts with affectionate humour.  Fascinatingly, the other main interviewer is former Sinn Fein Leader Jerry Adams to whom MacGowan actually displays enormous respect, something that apparently surprised Julien Temple having seen how obstreperous MacGowan was with just about everyone else.

It’s tough to see Shane McGowan’s physical state now, in addition to the ravages of substance abuse, he can barely walk following a 2015 accident.  Still, this film isn’t a bleak cautionary tale or wallow in misery.  In his insightful examination of McGowan, Temple reveals that the spark of a brilliant maverick is still there and movingly, MacGowan tell Jerry Adams with almost child-like enthusiasm how much he hopes to write more songs to match his classics.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Music documentary.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Julien Temple.

Release date: 3rd Dec 2020.

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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