Review: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

The centrality of “authenticity” comes and goes in the annals of music criticism. In its most common usage it represents an artist’s commitment to music as craft, which is why hip-hop and techno were originally dismissed by self-serious, trad-oriented types. But in the sense of being authentic to one’s beliefs, the term really came into its own during the punk revolution of the late 70s and 80s, when artists themselves dismissed music that felt unrepresentative of the human condition. As a rock documentarist, Julien Temple has made this notion his metier, and his two-hour-plus study of the music and career of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan is more successful in this regard than his docs about the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer, if mainly because MacGowan himself sets both the pace and the tone of the film by being front and center for most of the movie.

MacGowan was authentic in an unusual way: An Irishman who celebrated his Irishness as a native Londoner. Already a drunk and hellion as a teen, he appeared to his family and friends to be on the short road to oblivion until he saw the Sex Pistols and adapted the punk image for his own purposes. What’s interesting is this image should have rightly put him on the even shorter road to self-destruction, as MacGowan, speaking from a wheelchair and with an often difficult-to-understand slur in the present to Temple, as well as to friends such as Johnny Depp (one of the film’s producers) and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, recalls how punk helped him find what can only be termed a constructive outlet for his self-destruction. And while he did start out as a rocker he quickly transmogrified the punk attitude to celebrate and expand on Irish traditional music forms with the Pogues. 

“I was put here by God to save Irish music,” he says without irony. More essentially, he used Irish music to talk about those things that have always been explicit in Irish literature, such as the Irish diaspora and the idea of exile. Though he claims Brendan Behan as his poetic soulmate, he sees James Joyce, who lived his life abroad and was, he points out, a great singer, as his true model for how to live as an artist. Though Temple makes much of MacGowan’s oft-repeated line that he purposely acted the drunken Irish stereotype in order to throw it back in the face of British racists, MacGowan’s romantic streak, as illustrated by songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and his classic Christmas song “Fairytale of New York,” is fully explicated as a means of putting his bad-boy reputation and demolished physical form into proper perspective. 

What’s most remarkable about the film, aside from the staggering array of source material that Temple got his hands on, is how MacGowan, who has railed not only against the establishment over the years but also against his bandmates (whom he’s “divorced” twice) and mentors like Elvis Costello (whom he fired once), now finds himself rock royalty and one of the giants of 20th literature, as Strummer (his replacement in the Pogues, don’t forget) once called him. The movie ends with a 60th birthday party on stage where he’s feted as an original for the ages, and while the movie emphasizes his physical deterioration it also celebrates the sharpness of his mind in the witty and cutting comments that seem so effortless for him. Crock of Gold is hagiography as a presentation of stark contrasts, which is why you can’t accuse it of being inauthentic. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Crock of Gold home page in Japanese

photo (c) The Gift Film Limited 2020

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