'Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

CROCK OF GOLD
Hanway Films
A richly detailed portrait of a self-destructive talent.
12/4/2020

Johnny Depp raises a glass to his hard-drinking rocker friend Shane MacGowan in director Julien Temple's latest music documentary.

Fifty years of killer hangovers condensed into two hours, Crock of Gold chronicles the dramatic larger-than-life story of Shane MacGowan, the Anglo-Irish singer-songwriter who achieved international fame in the 1980s as self-destructive frontman of Celtic-punk band The Pogues. Co-produced by MacGowan's friend Johnny Depp, who also makes a brief cameo, this boozy cinematic bromance could have been an indulgent love letter from one swashbuckling celebrity pirate to another. Thankfully, veteran British director Julien Temple, best known for his forensically detailed music films rooted in the late 1970s London punk scene, plots a careful path between bleary-eyed bad-boy mythology and solid biographical reportage. The result is a richly researched, consistently entertaining documentary that should appeal beyond narrow fan circles.

Crock of Gold is not the first screen profile of the ex-Pogues singer, but it is the most thorough and imaginative to date. Temple's signature maximalist style — layering contemporary interviews over archival material to create dense audiovisual collages of music and commentary, political and cultural history — is well-suited to a charismatic livewire like MacGowan, depicted here in terms more akin to the bardic outlaws and doomed martyrs of Celtic folklore than to any of his rock contemporaries.

Premiered last month at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where it won the special jury prize, Crock of Gold makes its North American debut Nov. 11 at DOC NYC fest. It opens opens theatrically in Ireland on Dec. 4, and everywhere in the U.K. on Dec. 7, with Magnolia Pictures presenting a special cinema event theatrically in the U.S. on Dec. 1 before its general release Dec. 4.

A jug-eared, snaggle-toothed, whiskey-sodden fireball of poetry and profanity, MacGowan was a force of nature in his Pogues prime, revitalizing traditional Irish folk music with punk energy, scabrous humor, political bite and contemporary diaspora stories. He even spent a few years as an unlikely pop star, his commercial profile peaking in 1987 with the schmaltzy festive hit Fairytale of New York, which remains an evergreen seasonal best-seller across much of Europe even today. So it comes as a shock when Temple reveals the 62-year-old singer's current depleted state, confined to a wheelchair since breaking his pelvis in a 2015 fall, his body bent and his speech slurred. Evidently still sharp of mind, MacGowan insists he is healing and hopes to write more songs soon. But decades of alcoholism, drug abuse and mental breakdown have clearly done irreparable damage.

Fortunately, Temple's lively storytelling style is robust enough to transform even ruined lives into compelling entertainment. He also has the advantage of a hugely colorful back story to work with, beginning with MacGowan's idealized memories of childhood holidays on his family's farm in Tipperary, poetically rendered here as silvery reveries of paradise lost. Growing up in England with Irish immigrant parents, MacGowan suffered routine racism but found creative liberation through sex, drugs and rock music, especially the revolutionary youthquake of punk. In an inspired throwback to his previous films on the Sex Pistols, Temple dramatizes several of the singer's more lurid anecdotes in playfully animated interludes. (Animation supervisor Jonny Halifax based one sequence of the animation on the sketches of Depp's friend Ralph’s Steadman, famed for his collaborations with the late Hunter S. Thompson.)

Admirably non-judgmental, Temple neither canonizes nor demonizes MacGowan, but he does include revealing glimpses of the singer's prickly temper and cruel humor. Reportedly denied a formal interview by MacGowan, the director tackles this minor obstacle by playing extensive audio and video clips from archive interviews, sometimes with the singer listening in, cackling and wincing at his youthful self. In fairness, however testy or arrogant he may be, he generally comes across as witty and articulate.

Temple also circumvents interview limitations by filming several one-on-one conversations between MacGowan and approved third parties, all trusted friends and famous fans. Chief among these is the singer's long-standing partner Victoria Mary Clarke, who appears to absorb his caustic moods with infinite patience and merciful love. The pair finally married in 2018. Depp also shares a few scenes with MacGowan, two old drinking buddies trading affectionate insults, even if Depp's fanboy deference seemingly extends to him adopting some kind of bizarre quasi-Irish accent.

A more contentious choice of guest interviewer is Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams, notorious for his alleged links to the IRA. Adams gamely attempts to engage MacGowan on their shared passion for Irish literature and history, with limited success. Temple's music documentaries have always been strong on political context, and he gives MacGowan's republicanism a full-blooded airing here, couching the Irish armed struggle against British colonialism in misty-eyed romanticism. “I always felt guilty that I didn't lay down my life for Ireland,” the singer says, consoling himself that at least he “participated in the revolution as a musician”.

Crock of Gold concludes on a high-spirited note at MacGowan's 60th birthday party, an all-star musical gathering featuring Bono, Sinead O'Connor, Nick Cave and more. The intended effect is celebratory, even if the aftertaste is bittersweet. Tellingly, none of the singer's former Pogues cohorts appear in the film, though he does offer a handwritten apology at the end in case he offended anyone with his blunt honesty. MacGowan may be a flawed icon with a messy legacy, but these hints of endearing humility add humanizing warmth to Temple's nuanced portrait.

Production companies: Infinitum Nihil, Nitrate Film, Hanway Films, BBC Music, Warner Music Entertainment
Cast: Shane McGowan, Johnny Depp, Victoria Mary Clarke, Siobhan MacGowan, Gerry Adams, Ann Scanlon
Director, screenwriter: Julien Temple
Producers: Johnny Depp, Stephen Deuters, Stephen Malit, Julien Temple
Cinematographer: Stephen Organ
Editor: Caroline Richards
Animation: Ralph Steadman
Music: Ian Neil
Sales company: Hanway Films, London
124 minutes