In the wild and uncertain world of music Shane MacGowan reached for them both. But Julian Temple’s documentary is far from a rise and fall film that takes pleasure in the destructive behavior of its subject. “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan” is the kind of film that tells the story of the musician/writer/poet’s life while getting to the spark that began the fire burning within him. We get to the very depth of him and learn things about this man that we never knew, in his own words.
Temple crafts his film as a confessional. MacGowan is not interviewed, not really. The legend precedes the tale and expresses his thoughts to willing listeners who would not judge him.
Johnny Depp, longtime friend (and the film’s producer) sits with the artist over drinks as he regales the actor and the audience with stories of his time in and out of The Pogues. The two men laugh and smoke and drink as MacGowan recounts the moments of his life that led to the creation of his ruggedly poetic Irish songs.
During these scenes with Depp, MacGowan is played recordings of his interviews throughout the decades, listening intently. These are fantastic moments, as his words fill the audio (always subtitled due to his heavy Irish brogue and slow manner of speaking). The camera stays on his face, all grin, wince and laughter, and in one of the film’s sweeter moments, reveals the troubadour’s sated smile as he hears himself speaking about his family.
Macgowan’s face shows us a rare state of bliss as the memories of his childhood paint warm pictures in his heart. His childhood memories are of a big family who worked hard and were proud Irish men and women who loved to sing and dance and drink. These were happy times in the household, even if the Ireland around them was in various states of turmoil.
This is the Shane MacGowan director Julian Temple wants us to see. Of course, it is impossible to make a documentary on this man without focusing on his years of drinking and drugs that have destroyed his teeth, his body, and his speech patterns. We do see these moments and the singer speaks to them with honesty. His Aunts and Uncles started him on lager when he was six years old. In his family, they believed children could do pretty much whatever they wanted if they went to mass. Quoting one of his Aunts, “If you give ‘em enough when they’re young, they won’t go overboard on it later on.” Well.
MacGowan refuses to point fingers and blames only himself for his alcohol and drug problems, being kicked out of the band he started, and the excesses that come with being a rock star. The singer speaks freely about his time with acid and heroin but doesn’t do so proudly. While there are certainly some entertaining stories about acid trips that will make you laugh out loud, MacGowan never boasts.
There are moments with him drunk on stage but MacGowan was (self-confessed) always drunk when performing. He claims it made it easier for him. However, this is not what the film dwells on. Non-stop touring certainly increased his addictions and, while we are witness to what MacGowan’s sister calls “his period of self-destructiveness,” there is much more to the story and to the man.
Temple cuts through the exploitative headlines of MacGowan’s excesses that have overshadowed his genius as a songwriter. The lyrics to his songs come out of a poet’s soul.
He surrounds MacGowan’s heartfelt testimony with tons of footage, from wild animation and home movies to becoming a local punk celebrity (by just being wild at shows) to concert footage of The Pogues to clips from films and television, Julian Temple designs a flow to match the ups and downs of MacGowan’s life, each choice perfectly inserted into the moment.
The music of The Pogues is not overused but it is there. Of course it is there!
It is in the words where MacGowan’s soul burns through. This is a man who knows the power of love. Love for country and for family. A proud Irishman who delighted in bringing the old musical styles of his country to new fans, he states that “I did it all for Ireland.”
And to see his marriage to his decades-long sweetheart Victoria Mary Clarke come to fruition in 2018 and continue to endure gives the film a sense of the man’s character. Clarke herself took up interviewer duties during the making of the film.
Moments of beauty and mystery can be found throughout the film but its most potent weapon is a moment between husband and wife. As his lyrics score the scene, MacGowan sits quietly in his wheelchair. His wife leans in to kiss him softly. As she pulls away, he reaches out to her for an embrace. They hold one another for some time as MacGowan’s hand gently strokes her arm. It is a private moment that speaks to the peace this man has found and serves to illustrate the depth of his longing, something that had thus far only been experienced through his songs.
Sixty-two year-old MacGowan is wheelchair-bound (in 2015, he fell “the wrong way” coming out of a studio) and speaks even slower than he once did. These days his slurring is not from being drunk but from the effects of time and revelry. Yet this is no eulogy for a career that is long over nor is it a condemnation of a musician who fell prey to all the demons that come with being a star musician. MacGowan speaks of his desire to walk once again and get back to his songwriting. This is a man proud of his accomplishments in music and one who has a deep desire to create again. Dare we say that there is a glimmer of hope inside the usually cynical Shane McGowan? There very much is.
Julian Temple’s “Crock of Gold” is raucous, insightful, beer-soaked, sad, tragic, sweet, poetic, funny and heartbreakingly poignant. Just like Shane MacGowan.