Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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JULIEN TEMPLE: CROCK OF GOLD: A FEW ROUNDS WITH SHANE MACGOWAN (2020)

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YOUNG SHANE MACGOWAN ON STAGE

You don't have to be pretty to be hip (Pogues headline)

This film has a worthy subject - Shane MacGowan, provocative and gifted Irish singer and song writer of the unique and influential Celtic punk band the Pogues. Though a faded shell now in his early sixties, visibly wrecked from alcohol, drugs and a period of mental breakdown and recently disabled by a broken pelvis, he still clings to life and embodies a fabulous amount of contemporary Irish cultural and worldwide musical history which the filmmaker seeks to draw out and dramatize.

If this film works for you as it intends, "unashamedly complicit with its subject" as it is, in Jonathan Romney's words, it makes you fall under the spell of the man, his time, and Ireland. It does that starting with an almost fairytale and long ago recreation of MadGowan's small town Irish childhood in Tipperary which takes you back to a nostalgic, picture-book version of young Shane's earliest years and an earlier rural Ireland done with narration, family and archival photos, and fanciful reenactments. With the mood thus set, Temple moves to his subject's cranky, druggy adolescence from age six in London, which included a scholarship at a famous English public school (Westminster), from which he was expelled after two years for dealing drugs. But, by the way, he had started drinking when he was five. And incidentally, this film was co-produced by Johnny Depp, and a recurrent scene shows the two men cheerily drinking together, a pair of disreputable, alcoholic celebrities.

Though over two hours, this "A-list documentary," as[ Variety calls it, is both a work of art and a charmer. The time it takes up is good time. The early Irish childhood legend stuff may be a bit on the money. But it's also how Temple, who's long chronicled the London punk scene, shows his ability to weave the form of the documentary music bio into an art form - here, Irish-legend folk art. It is highly crafted to look artisanal. Not a moment seems perfunctory. Then, by the time you're halfway through, the anthemic lilt of the Pogue's Irish songs has you crying. Listen to Shane sing with Kirsty MacColl his big hit "Fairytale of New York:" They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold/But the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old. . ." It's a different kind of Christmas song, and one of a number of proofs that MacGowan was a remarkable poet-songwriter. Note: "was." He admits on screen he can't write songs now.

The music is touching and fine. But filmmaker Julien Temple makes the images their equal, using every trick in the book, weaving the archival and family footage and restagings into a mix literally set in frames or seen through period viewers, on an old Sony Trinitron, or with animations by Ralph Steadman, all blended into one legend, with the wrecked but still pungent MacGowan of today interwoven and telling this story, sadder, wiser, limp, sideways, but always articulate.

The Pogue's punk revival of Irish song had to be in England to bloom, Shane explains, just as he had to be in London as a young man to devour a rich night life unavailable in Ireland. And the revival and reinvigoration of Irish song did happen. But then, suddenly English soil became unfriendly to anything Irish when the IRA attacks of the eighties created a strong hostility. Then the band went touring, and then some: so many gigs in a year performing went completely stale, as MacGowan is seen declaring in contemporary interviews. 1988 drove him off the deep end and in New Zealand, in a hotel over a Maori graveyard, on speed he says was as strong as a pound of acid, he painted himself and the room all blue. When he returned home, he was committed. His sister, who's the only ordinary talking head here, says he was never the same again.

The interviews, nicely interwoven, which give MacGowan himself the narrative voice, are at different stages. In his prime as a singer-songwriter, with his terrible teeth, the better to snarl with (now totally replaced, however), leaving a big black gap up front, he seems to get uglier and uglier - and he was never handsome. But clearly he was sharply witty, funny, articulate even today, and then and now, attractive to many women. "Yes, I've noticed," he says. In his heyday they probably found even the bad teeth and the protuberant ears sexy, like the band's provocative name, originally Pogue Mahone, derived from the Irish for "kiss my arse." Somehow even MacGowan's rude provocative air can be winning because of his snuffle of a laugh that conveys digs with a gentler, humorous edge, as when he damns Yeats as an overrated poet: when he's good he's great, but a lot of his stuff is crap, he says; and "You and your fucking questions!" he grumbles repeatedly to a timid admirer/interviewer. In Ireland they were taught to say "fucking" very young and everybody used it, he has recounted, so even the foul language is rendered harmless, or, alternatively, part of inbred Irish anger at being so long under the English thumb. MqcGowan and the film make it clear everything he did is for about Ireland.

At the film's end you will see MacGowan's 60th birthday celebration in the Irish National Concert Hall by a band full of notable admirers and friends, including Nick Cave, Bono, Sinéad O’Connor, a Sex Pistol and Johnny Depp, and MacGowan presented with an honorary statuette of an Irish lyre by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

Be warned: as we said, MacGowan at present is in bad decline from the broken pelvis, much substance abuse (including a period of heroin). The film, as Variety suggests, leaves us with an elegiac feeling despite its subject's still tenacious affirmation of life. Whatever his current state, though, this is one of the year's best and most entertaining music documentaries, and Celtic punk a thing to discover or revisit.

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, 164 mins., debuted at San Sebastien and won its second highest honor there, the special jury prize. It had its North American premiere at DOC NYC. Released in the US by Magnolia Pictures, it Opens Dec 4, 2020 in theaters and on demand.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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