‘Crock of Gold’ Review — Behind the Boozy Brilliance of Shane MacGowan

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Crock of Gold Review

Odd are if you were to walk into an Irish pub in any part of the world, you won’t have to sit with your pint of stout for too long before somebody puts the Pogues on the jukebox. The Pogues were a unique force in the world of ‘80s music, blending the traditional form of Irish music with a snarling punk ethos. The face of the Pogues – and, oh, what a face! – is Shane MacGowan, a songwriter in line with Ireland’s grand history of poets with a thirst for alcohol that makes the stereotypical Irish drunkard seem like a teetotaler. Veteran punk documentarian and filmmaker Julien Temple takes on the complicated life story of Shane MacGowan in the new documentary Crock of Gold. Temple creates a sprawling work of biographical filmmaking with Crock of Gold, going so much deeper than your average rock ‘n’ roll documentary as the film covers the personal history of MacGowan but also the broader story of the Irish struggle which is central to MacGowan’s art and identity.

Since the heyday of the Pogues in the mid-‘80s, Shane MacGowan has seen his health in a state of perpetual decline mostly due to his prolific drinking. This is not a new phenomenon. I can recall hearing unsubstantiated murmurs about MacGowan’s health – including a rumor that he had his legs amputated – nearly 20 years ago. Between MacGowan’s declining physical state and the cantankerous manner in which he shuts down questioning, Temple is smart not to solely rely on contemporaneous interviews with his subject. Crock of Gold does feature MacGowan in conversation with Johnny Depp (who only modestly embarrasses himself here by adopting a phony English accent in conversation and later playing guitar for Bono’s awful rendition of “A Rainy Night in Soho”)  and Gerry Adams, former head of the Irish political party Sinn Féin. Any gaps in MacGowan’s story that aren’t covered in these conversations are filled either by archival interviews or interviews between MacGowan and his wife Victoria Mary Clarke for their 2001 book A Drink with Shane MacGowan. Temple’s brilliant weaving of sources creates a compelling biography that isn’t simply a retread of MacGowan’s 2001 book nor does he allow his subject to dictate the terms of the narrative.

The primary focus at the start of Crock of Gold is on MacGowan’s youth in Ireland. As a matter of fact, Temple spends so much time on this subject you might wonder if the filmmaker is padding his runtime. Stories about long-deceased relatives at first seem like extraneous details but as the whole picture starts to come together that you see the importance of each moment that Temple has included. The short time growing up in Ireland was incredibly important to MacGowan’s Irish identity, including alcoholism, history, literature, and the Catholic Church.

If the seeds of who Shane MacGowan was to become were planted in Ireland, they blossomed in London. His family moved to London in search of a middle class existence they couldn’t find in Ireland. However, the rigidness of the British class system kept the family mostly static. McGowan was bullied in his youth for his Irish heritage, and the experience seemed to emphasize centuries of Irish oppression at the hands of the British. Eventually MacGowan takes to overt drug and alcohol abuse to deal with his own anxieties, resulting in a brief moment of institutionalization.  Upon his release and in the midst of questioning his own sanity, MacGowan discovers his lifeline – punk rock.

It’s this part of the story that Temple’s extensive resume in puck rock really becomes an incredible asset. Julien Temple was filming the early Sex Pistols shows MacGowan attended, so there’s plenty of footage of MacGowan in his youth to match the wild anecdotes of the early punk rock scene in London. Through punk MacGowan is able to tap into his creative side, starting the band the Nipple Erectors who later shorten their name to the Nips. As punk morphed into new wave, MacGowan moved musically in a new direction by forming Pogue Mahone, which translated means “kiss my ass.” Pushing traditional Irish music into the 20th century worked as the band quickly became a hit on the London scene, eventually shortening their name to the Pogues because the BBC found out what Pogue Mahone meant.

As happens, the success of the Pogues gave MacGowan free reign to tap into a boundless supply of intoxicants which fueled the darker side of his personality. It’s how Temple handles this aspect of the story that makes Crock of Gold such a well-crafted work of documentary filmmaking. The director finds the humor in the many moments of MacGowan’s inebriated antics. However, never do these anecdotes glorify alcohol abuse, even when they’re outright hilarious. It’s impossible when staring at a withered, wheelchair-bound MacGowan still chugging away at the booze. Glory and tragedy working hand-in-hand as is the Irish way.

As evidenced by his previous punk documentaries on the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Julien Temple doesn’t follow a generic template but rather allows the work and story of his subjects to guide his style and storytelling. In this case, Temple employs a lot of animated sequences to bring MacGowan’s stories of drink and drug to life. MacGowan at times is brutally open and honest, introspective on his failings personally and professionally. Other times, he shuts down the line of questioning. That’s why it’s so key that Temple draws on multiple sources to tell MacGowan’s story, as to find the joy and humor in the dizzying, booze-filled highs and the heartbreaking tragedy of the many lows.

Julien Temple once again proves that he is the definitive documentarian of the London punk scene, and Crock of Gold further cements an already legendary filmmaking career. For any fan of the Pogues, Crock of Gold is a must-watch, taking us deeper into the life and legacy of Shane MacGowan but finding new wrinkles that even the most ardent fan might not have known. Even for those unaware of MacGowan’s music, Crock of Gold is still a marvelously crafted work non-fiction storytelling, a moving portrait of a self-destructive poet.

Crock of Gold
  • Overall Score
4

Summary

A magnificently crafted work of non-fiction filmmaking from director Julien Temple, Crock of Gold looks at the booze-fueled brilliance of the Pogues’ frontman Shane MacGowan, examining his poetic lyrics and self-destructive excesses.

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