Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away


Phil Lynott (foreground) and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy get down to it.

(2021) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Phil Lynott, Gale Claydon, Scott Gorham, Eric Bell, Adam Clayton, Huey Lewis, James Hetfield, Suzi Quatro, Midge Ure, Peter Lynott, Carl Shaaban, Niall Stokes, Caroline Taraskevics, Sarah Lynott, Jerome Rimson, Darren Wharton, Brush Shiels, Philomena Lynott, John Kelly, Hugh Feighery, Gus Curtis, Cathleen Howard-Lynott, Diane Wagg, Rebecca Hickey. Directed by Emer Reynolds

 

As a crusty old rock critic who grew up in the 70s and listened to classic rock throughout high school. I am more than familiar with Thin Lizzy and their captivating frontman Phil Lynott. Most Americans who are younger than I probably only know their seminal Jailbreak album and their iconic hit “The Boys are Back in Town.”

But Lizzy was more than that album and more than that song, and for us Yanks who are less familiar with their output than we should be, this film is a very good way to get introduced to the band and the man. Lynott was a mixed race young man born in England’s Midlands to a single mom (an absolute scandal in the Fifties) who saw the wisdom of shipping him off to Dublin to be raised by his maternal grandparents (although he remained close to his mum Philomena throughout his life). He put new meaning to the term “Black Irish,” as he was something of a rarity back in those days and while he did encounter racism growing up, that seemed to be less of a thing once he emerged as a rock star, although black men weren’t a big part of classic rock with the exception of Jimi Hendrix and a few others. But Lynott wasn’t one to care about expectations.

He merged Irish legends with American idioms, blending street rats and mythic warriors into a seamless but completely unique mixture. Lizzy also utilized twin lead guitarists, making for a graceful but thunderous sound that recalled the power of bands like the Allman Brothers but with a distinctly Celtic flair. Lynott played bass which he learned in order to start his own band, and became quite good at it; he was certainly a charismatic frontman who although generally shy offstage, wasn’t above utilizing a little Irish charm at concerts “I hear a lot of ladies here have a little Irish in them.” Loud roar. “Would you like a little more?” Louder roar.

For the most part, this is a typical rock doc that thoroughly dives into the music of Lizzy albeit with a minimum of analysis; there are an awful lot of talking heads, most of whom are effusive in their praise of Lynott as a nice guy and a devoted family man. Both of his daughters appear here, as well as his ex-wife (they divorced a few years before Lynott passed away) and a former girlfriend. So do bandmates Eric Ball (the original guitarist), Midge Ure (who briefly replaced Gary Moore as second guitarist before leaving to front his own band, Ultravox) and Californian Scott Gorham who is entertaining in his own right, but when discussing his friend’s passing gets uncharacteristically reflective.

We also hear from journalists and fellow rockers like U2’s Adam Clayton, Metallica’s James Hetfield, Huey Lewis and Suzi Quatro, as well as those who knew him in Dublin like his Uncle Peter Lynott and friend Gus Curtis. We do get a sense of who he was; his intense Irish pride (he often corrected journalists who got his heritage wrong, or details about Ireland wrong), his devotion to his daughters (he wrote each of them a song dedicated to them), and his fascination with things American (he grew up on American television, and was eager to break through in the American market, but had the worst luck with it – the tour for Jailbreak had to be cut short because of illness, which would be a critical opportunity lost).

There are a few oddities though; often throughout the film Reynolds uses water as a metaphor to an almost head-clubbing point. While mentioning that Lynott had drug “problems,” she doesn’t bring up that he was actually addicted to heroin, which led to the septicemia that would claim his life at age 36 in 1986. But let’s face it; the band is almost criminally underrepresented on American radio, other than three or four songs mostly off of a single album. They actually released 12 albums that contained a mixture of balls-out rockers and introspective power ballads. Lynott was one of the best songwriters in classic rock and much of his music remains undiscovered by American audiences. However, a viewing of this movie is likely to motivate people to explore his other albums. While devoted fans of the group and of Lynott may find nothing here that is new, casual fans will definitely get their money’s worth.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative packed with some terrific music.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too cutesy with cutaway shots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual references and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A life-size statue of Lynott was erected on Harry Street near Grafton Street in Dublin in 2005. Many electrical junction boxes in Dublin have been painted with Lynott’s likeness.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
An Intrusion

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The Go-Go’s


They got the beat.

(2020) Music Documentary (Eagle RockBelinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Margot Olaverra, Ginger Canzoneri, Elissa Bello, Pleasant Gehman, Miles Copeland, Kathleen Hanna, Sting, Terry Hall, Lee Thompson, Lynval Golding, Chris Connelly, Dave Robinson, Paula Jean Brown, Richard Gottehrer, Stuart Copeland, Jann Wenner, Martha Quinn. Directed by Alison Ellwood

 

What the hell is wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? More to the point, why aren’t the Go-Go’s in it?

This is a band that has never truly been taken seriously. Even at the height of their fame, they were written off by critics as a lightweight pop band, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were trailblazers. They didn’t have a Svengali behind them as the Runaways, who have received far more props from the critical community. They achieved their success on their own. Maybe it’s because they flamed out so quickly, but there are bands in the Hall that have had shorter careers than they.

The Go-Go’s emerged from the L.A. punk scene that gave us bands like X, Motels, The Germs, and the Minutemen, among others. Jane Wiedlin, the manic pixie dreamgirl guitarist for the band, talks candidly of her own depression which led to a suicide attempt at 15; she was rescued by a punk scene that empowered her and inspired her to join a band with vocalist Belinda Carlisle.

The nascent group were more enthusiastic than accomplished. Early footage of them shows a band that can barely play their instruments, but even though their music is very different than what it would eventually become, that pop sheen can still clearly be heard. They eventually added guitarist Charlotte Caffey who turned out to be a talented songwriter who gave them their first hit single, “We Got the Beat,” inspired by a viewing of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

They became better, growing a following. They added a new drummer, Gina Schock, who turned out to be a world-class skin-pounder. And then when original bassist Margot Olaverra, who resisted the band’s shift from pure punk to a more pop-oriented sound, became ill, they recruited former Textones guitarist Kathy Valentine to take her spot. Valentine, who had never played bass before at the time, recalls learning the entire set of her new band in a two-day cocaine-fueled binge.

An early milestone was an invitation to tour England as an opening act for the Specials and Madness, two ska revival bands who the Go-Go’s opened for in L.A. It turned out to be a difficult tour; the Go-Go’s didn’t play ska music and often got booed off the stage, or spat upon by white nationalists who were fans of the ska movement (which is kind of ironic, when you think of it; most of the ska bands at the time were integrated and the music itself was based on music from Jamaica). It did get them attention enough from Stiff Records, the influential English independent label which then released “We Got the Beat” as a single. During the tour, Wiedlin became romantically involved with Specials frontman Terry Hall and the two wrote another song that would become a signature of the band: “Our Lips are Sealed.”

Miles Copeland, manager of The Police, signed the band to his fledgling IRS Records label who released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. Jet-propelled by the two singles, it rose to number one on the charts and established the group as a major hitmaker. From there, they got on the rock and roll treadmill of touring, making a new album, touring, rinse, repeat.

Like other bands in the industry, the group was beset by the usual problems; squabbles about royalty payments, drug use (Caffey hid a burgeoning heroin addiction from the band, even as she continued to write the majority of their hits), Even as the Go-Go’s were becoming one of the biggest acts in rock and roll, the seeds of their implosion were planted; they fired their longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri for a more corporate management team, and eventually Wiedlin left the band. They replaced her briefly with Paula Jean Brown, but the chemistry of the band had already been affected. Six months after Wiedlin left the band, the rest of the group called it a day.

Ellwood has assembled a pretty standard rockumentary with plenty of interviews. The band is remarkably candid about their own foibles with the exception of Carlisle who while forthcoming about her own drug habit in the past, doesn’t mention it here and only obliquely refers to the role her own ego played in the schisms that ultimately broke the band apart. Ellwood does a good job of capturing the bond that still exists between the band (as the documentary was being completed, the band recorded their first material together in nearly two decades). She’s less successful at offering context of how the band was affected by their era – and how they affected succeeding eras. Only Bikini Kill’s outspoken Kathleen Hanna really remarks on the influence the band had on female musicians that came afterwards.

It’s hard to understand why this band hasn’t gotten the credit that is due them. Their music was never outwardly political or topical and thus became timeless; they sang about love and lust and loneliness; the things we all relate to. They did it with a relentlessly cheerful beat and irresistible pop hooks. There is skill involved in all of that but the band ended up being marginalized by everyone except their fans.

Nobody really took them seriously back then, a head-scratching attitude that continues to this day. There is the fact that they are all very attractive women and there is a tendency to look at attractive women as incompetents who get by on their looks rather than talent. It could be the mere fact that they are women, but when I think back to the recent documentaries on Joan Jett and Hanna, women whose music was more aggressive than that of the Go-Go’s, and the critical reception to both of those who hailed the subjects of those films as innovators and trailblazers. Well, so were the Go-Go’s but even now I don’t see the same type of acclaim being accorded them. Perhaps a more strident documentary was needed to maybe force people to listen. This band deserves better. They always have.

REASONS TO SEE: Puts the spotlight on a group that never really got its due.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Go-Go’s were the first (and to date, only) all-female group to play their own instruments and write their own songs to have a number one album on the Billboard charts.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV,  Fubo, Google Play, Showtime, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Reputation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Little Fish