Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane McGowan, Julien Temple’s documentary about the irascible Pogues singer, airs tonight at 10.00pm on BBC Four. Here's our film review and interview with Temple from last December
Brave is the soul who attempts to make a full-blown documentary film about Shane MacGowan, but we are talking about director Julien Temple here, a man who has form when it comes to corralling the lives of some of music’s more difficult anti-heroes.
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Temple’s films on The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Dr. Feelgood are among the best rock docs (a description he hates) ever made, while his superb movies on Glastonbury and the mind-expanding London: The Modern Babylon proved he has always had a keen eye for context and history as well as the scrapes and scraps of rock `n’ roll.
He’s been trying to make a film about Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks for years now (good luck with that) so putting some kind of shape on the scrambled and chaotic life of the irascible and cantankerous MacGowan may have even been a walk by the canal for Temple.
The Shane of 2020, largely confined to a wheelchair these past few years, holds court like some Celtic buddha with a 1000-yard stare in Temple's film
Like many of his films, he takes a wrecking ball to convention and takes an impressionistic, anarchic and freewheeling approach that certainly captures the unbottled spirit of the music MacGowan created with The Pogues, the Celtic punk soul brothers who took an audacious shot across the bows of the eighties with their songs of "fighting, drinking, dying, living", all filigreed with Celtic myths and legends. We did mention drink, right? Lots of drink.
Temple takes a mocking Disneyfied view of the Ireland Shane grew up in, all Celtic warriors and leprechauns, and while most of this film is as well-trodden Nenagh boreen, the sequences covering MacGowan’s upbringing in Tipperary do turn fresh turf. Feeling like a surreal cross between a John Hinde postcard and a Flann O’Brien novel, there is a huge amount of impish myth-making going down among those bucolic backroads and tumbledown cottages.
What is very true is that Shane, raised by his bohemian parents, Therese and Maurice, and an extended family of eccentric aunts and uncles, took to the drink early. The tales were tall, My Fight for Irish Freedom by Dan Breen was the Bible, and the porter flowed. Later there were indeed streams of whiskey. Shane was drinking and smoking at a hair-raisingly tender age. It has perhaps been the one constant in his life.
Shane, an Irish émigré forever in shamrock-tinted shades, still has an overly romanticised view of an Ireland that never really existed except maybe in Dev's fever dreams
Uprooted again when he was 13, the family ended up billeted in the grim artifice of the Barbican Centre in London, as far away from rural Tipp as possible. The highly intelligent and gifted Shane won a literary scholarship to the Westminster School where he soon befriended the school bully. Later, there was work on building sites, and a nocturnal life of uppers and downers on the streets of Soho, commemorated in perhaps The Pogues’ greatest song, The Old Main Drag. Stints in rehab followed before he staggered into the welcoming arms of punk at the height of the Paddy-bashing era in England, and later again, the crock of gold of The Pogues.
The Shane of 2020, largely confined to a wheelchair these past few years, holds court like some Celtic buddha with a 1000-yard stare in Temple’s film. His years of refusal mean he will not do any straight-forward interviews but the ever enterprising filmmaker has tracked down numerous old recordings of a brighter, more forthcoming Shane and they provide a window into the soul of the man, who, at the height of his extraordinary creative powers, brilliantly subverted the cliché of the drunken Irish.
When he does speak, it’s in riddles or pithy insights ("God is Irish", "I used to get high when I dropped the host at mass") and when he consents to sit down for a series of misfiring chats with various celebrity interviewers, it does at least help to moor the shipwreck of the story. He is testy and impatient with a terrified looking Bobby Gillespie, gentle with his wife Victoria, and seems awed by Gerry Adams, who engages with halting conversation with him in Shane’s apartment. Day-long drinking sessions with long-time friend and fellow bon viveur Johnny Depp, the man who financed this film, in a dimly lit room are punctuated with MacGowan’s Mutley snigger.
Shane, an Irish émigré forever in shamrock-tinted shades, still has an overly romanticised view of an Ireland that never really existed except maybe in Dev’s fever dreams. He admits that he is ashamed that he never joined the IRA and "laid down my life for Ireland" and not unreasonably sees his work with The Pogues as his contribution to our Great Patriotic Struggle.
MacGowan never bargained on such fame and success and it seems to have scarred him for life. As his sister Siobhan, who he once planted face-first into a cowpat when they were kids in Tipperary, remarks poignantly at one point, "He went away and never came back. Not the Shane I ever knew". Soon to be 63, he remains a bruised character, one moment tender and wise, the next peevish but after decades of hard-living there may be a mellowing at work. However, something still burns in those soulful and doleful eyes.
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2