Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan


Having a few with the Lion in winter.

(2020) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Shane MacGowan, Johnny Depp, Bono, Nick Cave, Gerry Adams, Maurice MacGowan, Paddy Hill, Therese MacGowan, Bobby Gillespie, Ann Scanlon, Siobhan MacGowan, Paolo Ikonomi, Terry Edwards, Victoria Mary Clarke. Directed by Julien Temple

 

One has to love the Irish. There is no culture on Earth that is so entwined with music; there is no culture on Earth that loves a good time more. Their history and mythology is beautiful, as is the Emerald Isle itself. They have endured famine, occupation and derision and still remain a culture that matters.

Shane MacGowan, best known for being the leader of the Pogues, embodies all of the often-contradictory aspects of Irishness. He is brilliant, a superb songwriter and a wit. He is also temperamental, self-destructive and occasionally curmudgeonly. This documentary, from noted British music documentarian Julien Temple, is not so much a love letter to his life as it is another opportunity for him to launch both middle fingers at those who have oppressed his race.

Through archival footage, brilliantly bizarre animations and interviews (primarily with his father and sister), we get a sense of his boyhood in Tipperary – his love of family and partying (he was smoking and drinking whiskey before he was double digits in age) where he was radicalized into supporting the Irish Republican Army (Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams reminisces with MacGowan about the good ol’ days) which he still believes in to this day (“I only wish I had the f*****g guts to join up”.

We go through his boyhood in great deal, including his brief commitment to a mental institution by his sister while still a teen. When he was released, he fell into the punk scene and inspired by the Sex Pistols, went on to form his own band – the Nipple Erectors. From there, he went on to form the Pogues, whose full name – Pogue Mahone – is Gaelic for “Kiss my ass” – doesn’t occur until an hour into the film. Temple is clearly trying to relate the rise of MacGowan to the time and place, but Jaysus Murray and Joseph!

MacGowan is in very poor condition; his speech is slurred and at times one gets the sense that the years of drinking, smoking and drugs may have affected him mentally as well. He clearly is uninterested in being interviewed for the movie and despite having Adams and celebrity MacGowan pal Johnny Depp (who was also a producer on the film) to coax him into talking doesn’t really work. It is also telling that none of the Pogues agreed to be interviewed for the film and although the end credits profess a certain amount of love and a desire for forgiveness on MacGowan’s part, his bandmates seem to be less inclined to mend fences.

Still, there is no doubt of MacGowan’s brilliance as a songwriter; one need look no further than the Christmas perennial “A Fairytale of New York” (perhaps his best-known song, sung with the late, great Kirsty MacColl) and “Summer in Siam,” which he sings as a duet with Nick Cave here. There is something not so much admirable about seeing MacGowan as a shell of what he was, but seeing the defiance still very much present. Like a lion still in full voice even though pressed on every side by time and trouble, there is nobility in that roar, even if the teeth are gone.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a mythic quality that’s pure Irish. The animations are grand – the music even grander.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nearly an hour into the film and they are still covering his school days.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, underage drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Temple has previously done documented on British bands of the late 70s like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the UK Subs and Madness.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2,000 Days on Earth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Changin’ Times of Ike White

For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!