Shane MacGowan does not look well. Then again, the former lead singer of the Pogues and one of our greatest living songwriters has not looked well for quite some time. The notion that he’s permanently, tipsily teetering on the edge of this mortal coil has been a part of MacGowan’s legacy for decades; with the exception of Keith Richards, no rock star has defied the odds of an early demise while indulging in drink, drugs and an appetite for self-destruction that would destroy mere mortals. And even when you see the 62-year-old Irish musician slumped at a 45-degree angle, hand on a semi-drained bottle or a half-finished pint, eyes glassier than a block full of skyscrapers and slurring his way through angry fuck-offs, there’s the temptation to deem someone so doggedly devoted to his vices “heroic.” If most of us should fall from grace with God, we’d be cursed with a mundane existence that’s not a endless bender. By those parameters, Shane should be ordained a saint any moment now.
Crock of Gold, Julien Temple’s documentary on the man, the myth and the magnificently mercurial punk who gave the world three minutes and 45 seconds of perfection in his cover of “Dirty Old Town,” doesn’t shy away from its subject’s propensity for a tipple. Nor does it avert its eyes from the damage done: It’s charitable to say that the man is a wreck and the good times have taken a toll. It occasionally gazes on MacGowan with a certain kind of awe, especially when he regales his various audiences — from former Sinn Fein figurehead Gerry Adams to old pal Johnny Depp, peacocking in outlaw-by-proxy mode — with anecdotes of bad acid trips and painting haunted hotel rooms blue, punctuated with a laugh that sounds like a tap spitting out a keg’s last dregs. And you can also see the concern as folks talk about his well-being, and admit they’ve given up on trying to change him or sway him toward moderation. (Shane’s gonna Shane, people.) The movie comes not to bury this legend but to praise him. Inhuman endurance or not, you worry it may end up having to do the former regardless.
But what makes Crock feel like more than just a portrait of an artist as a soused sage is that, like the best docs of this ilk, it tries to place its subject within the larger contexts of time, place and broken ground. Temple doesn’t want to romanticize Shane’s superhuman capacity of consumption over what actually fueled his creative output — which, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t simply rivers of whiskey and stout. It was a fierce Irish pride that was instilled in the young MacGowan as he grew up in Tipperary, portrayed here as a warped Eden of shenanigans and salt-of-the-earth affection. It was his family, filled with colorful relatives, and his community. It was his keen interest in history, especially his native country’s history with imperialism and rebellion. And it was the feelings of alienation when the MacGowans end up in London, which leads to bullying, juvenile delinquency, nervous breakdowns and eventually being institutionalized. While he’s in the psych ward, someone gives Shane a guitar. When he gets out, he spies a poster for a new band. They are called the Sex Pistols.
Like a gajillion other spotty youths full of piss, vinegar and rage, MacGowan found a safe haven in the first stirrings of punk rock — he became a “face” in the cultural phenomenon, constantly seen pogoing in the front row of shows and getting his picture in the NME. And like many people caught up in the DIY wave of three chords and a snarl, the 19-year-old quickly started his own band, the Nipple Erectors. It’s an era that Temple knows all too well, having been an essential chronicler of those early days; The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth and the Fury (2000) remain the twin definitive histories of the Sex Pistols, and his resume includes docs on the Clash and U.K. Subs. It makes sense that he brought back his anarchic Swindle style for telling Shane’s story, dropping in animated bits that borrow pages out of R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman’s sketch books, and employing clips of old movies and newsreels for either buffering commentary or maximum irony. Having spent the first hour detailing a rambunctious, loving Irish culture, the movie segues naturally into its London’s-Burning time-capsule chapters. It makes MacGowan’s eureka moment of fusing his influences into something that’s equal parts the Dubliners and the Damned seem like the most natural thing in the world. “It’s like punk, you know,” Shane slurs about Irish music. “It’s earthy. It’s human … it was obvious to anyone who wasn’t a blind chimpanzee with his ears cut off that we were gonna be huge.”
Enter the Pogues, the tale of pissed-drunk punks who “needed to happen in the diaspora” and became the best band in London — factors which weren’t mutually exclusive but not always complimentary, either. (“We’re better when we’re sober,” MacGowan admitted, “but it’s not as much fun.”) Enter also: notoriety, a slot opening for Elvis Costello, two masterpieces in a row (1985’s Rum Sodomy and the Lash and 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God), an unexpected hit single with the now-perennial holiday standard “Fairytale of New York,” wild success, wilder excess, burn-out, the bliss of getting fired, the Heroin Years and a solo career with his backing band, the Popes. All of this is recounted with affection and bitterness by MacGowan, when our rambling man isn’t lost in his thoughts or telling his interrogators to outright fuck off; the doc’s subtitle, “A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan,” works on many levels. His reunion with the band in 2001, which led to successful tours the group disbanded in 2014, is never discussed. None of the Pogues agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. A scrawled note of love and forgiveness addressed to the Pogues family, including their late manager Frank Murray, precedes the end credits.
Is Crock of Gold a shaky affair, prone to tangents and a print-the-legend rhapsodizing that suddenly stumble into genuinely inspirational moments? Of course it is — consider its subject. That makes it easier to reconcile the insights with the occasionally aimless segments of folks trying to coax answers out of MacGowan, or worse, the just-a-night-out-at-the-pub vignettes. (The less said about Depp pulling a Zelig and trying to ape Shane’s cadences over drinks, the better. I guess this is what being a producer on the doc buys you?) Is it also an appropriate tribute to a musician who has served as cultural ambassador, cautionary tale, and a Celtic last-call Bard — a walking contradiction who sought to reclaim an Irish stereotype (“They want a drunken Paddy, I’ll give ’em a fucking drunken Paddy!”) and constantly seemed to risk slipping into the larger-than-life embodiment of one? Yes, and then some. You do not need to be drunk or prone to romantic, nostalgic notions of the old country to recognize the man was a poet. You don’t even have to be Irish to hear the beauty in his lyrics, though as with most things, it certainly helps.
It ends with Shane’s 60th birthday, in which Bono, Nick Cave and others honor him by singing his songs. In a wheelchair, he joins Cave for a duet of “Summer in Siam.” The scene is joyous, and it’s sad. But as in so many moments in this doc, you are never allowed to forget that — despite the wild years and uncontrollable urges and squandered opportunities — MacGowan was, first and foremost, a songwriter. Those songs are his life story, his reflection of and addition to his country’s heritage, his sodden yowl of recognition. Crock keeps bringing you back around to that central fact. For that alone, it’s worth its weight in you-know-what.