Neil Young said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Shane MacGowan, the subject of Julien Temple’s kinetic and reflective “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” has done a little of both. The documentary can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre, starting Dec. 4.
The co-founder and leader of the Pogues, renowned for his methedrine-laced Celtic-based music and profound and scatological lyrics that rival the poems of Charles Bukowski, MacGowan makes his first appearance in the film in a clip belting out his 1987 hit “Fairy Tale of New York.” Voted the number one Yuletide song of all time in a 2004 VH1 poll, it’s no “Silent Night” (a sample: “Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last”). A cut is made from this performance to MacGowan today, 62 but looking much older, drinking white wine, and sitting in a wheelchair (he broke his pelvis, in a 2015 fall). He looks lost until he begins telling the story of his life.
It begins in fiercely Republican (as in Irish Republic) County Tipperary, where he grew up on a farm with no electricity or plumbing, had his first drink at 6, and was surrounded by a beloved extended family. It was a childhood paradise. Then the family moved to London in search of middle-class respectability, or so MacGowan ruefully recalls. He had trouble adjusting to the new environment and had a nervous breakdown. After recovering he got a scholarship to the posh Westminster School, where he got beaten up for being Irish until he earned his classmates’ respect by becoming their drug connection. He was expelled in his second year.
As a teenager MacGowan got so out of control that his parents were relieved when he became part of the punk movement. They thought it might settle him down even after his girlfriend bit his ear off at a rowdy club and he got his picture in the paper. “We felt punk was very good for Shane,” recalls his sister. “It let him express everything in a very positive way.”
When punk faded, a disillusioned MacGowan turned to the traditional music of his homeland. He co-founded the Pogues (who were originally called Pogue Mahone, which is Irish for something unflattering and unprintable) and found a ready audience among the huge Irish population in London. Their popularity spread, they turned out some hit albums, but even in the midst of an IRA bombing campaign the Pogues proudly proclaimed their support for the Irish Republican cause with songs like “Birmingham Six” in 1988, about six Irishmen falsely convicted of a deadly terrorist attack. The British banned its broadcast.
MacGowan’s meteoric success was a prolonged bender of brilliance, booze, drugs, and endless, ecstatic touring. It was fun until the punishing toll — he says one year he played 363 gigs — pushed him over the edge. In New Zealand he hallucinated that dead Maori warriors commanded him to strip himself naked and paint himself blue, so he did (this is reenacted in funny-nightmarish animation by Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson’s frequent illustrator). On tour in Japan he tumbled out of a van, cracked his head, fell into a coma, and when he awoke learned to his relief that he’d been fired.
It’s only 1991. MacGowan took some time off, started a new band called the Popes, and began again.
Temple (director of many music documentaries, such as “The Filth and the Fury,” 2000 about the Sex Pistols) centers the film on the shaky but shrewd recollections of MacGowan. An eclectic assortment of guest interviewers converse with him, such as former leader of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams, MacGowan’s now-pudgy friend Johnny Depp, and MacGowan’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke. Clarke occasionally jogs her husband’s memory. “I remember us getting beaten up,” she says about the furor surrounding his “rebel songs.” “I wasn’t surprised,” he answers.
Temple illustrates MacGowan’s halting monologue with a kaleidoscopic collage of home movies, family photos, archival footage, old interviews, clips from films such as John Ford’s “The Plough and the Stars” (1936) and Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (2006), concert performances, black-and-white reenactments of MacGowan’s idyllic lost childhood, and inventive animated sequences, including depictions of his first drink of whiskey as a child and the night his Jimi Hendrix poster came to life and spoke to him.
Two hours of this is exhausting and exhilarating; and one is impressed that MacGowan has been able to survive a lifetime of it in relatively good humor, if not in great shape. Asked in the end if there was anything else he would like to happen in his life he says, “I’d like to start prolifically writing songs again.” After a long pause during which a clock audibly ticks he adds, “And I’d like to be able to play pool.”
In addition to streaming via the Brattle, “Crock of Gold” will screen on December 1 for one night only at Showcase Cinemas, including the Showcase Superlux Chestnut Hill. The screening will be followed by four performances from Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday concert, featuring Bono, Glen Hansard, and others.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.