December 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Julien Temple
Culture Representation: The documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of Irish-British singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, who is best known as the former lead singer of The Pogues.
Culture Clash: MacGowan has had lifelong battles with drug addiction, mental illness and the prejudices between Irish and British cultures.
Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of MacGowan fans, “Crock of Gold” will appeal primarily to people interested in an unflinching look at what happens when a self-destructive artist ruins his health and career and knows that his best creative days are behind him.
A lot of hedonistic rock stars would like to think that they can be like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Despite being an admitted and notorious alcoholic, drug addict and heavy smoker (the only drug he’s admitted to quitting is heroin), Richards is still able to function and do tours with one of the most successful rock bands of all time. He says he’ll never retire. And because of his down-to-earth, roguish charm, as well as his influential legacy of legendary songwriting and musicianship, Richards isn’t just a respected rock star. He’s beloved.
But the reality is that Richards is something of a medical miracle and truly an exception to the type of lifestyle that leaves most people dead before they reach middle-age or living a deteriorating existence plagued with myriads of health problems once they reach a certain age. It’s exactly this reality faced by Shane MacGowan, the Irish-British singer/songwriter who’s best known as the former lead singer of The Pogues. Richards is 14 years older than MacGowan, who was born in 1957, but MacGowan looks much older than most people in his own age group. Although there’s a noticeable tone of celebrity worship in the documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” the movie also shows without judgment that celebrities aren’t the invincible gods some people would like to think they are.
Johnny Depp (who’s had his own very public battles with substance abuse) is a producer of the documentary. And he’s a longtime friend of MacGowan and of Richards. (Depp directed a documentary about Richards in the 2010s that remains unreleased.) Depp appears throughout “Crock of Gold,” in scenes in a pub where he, MacGowan and MacGowan’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke are gathered for a very obviously intoxicated MacGowan and Depp to trade quips and memories about their lives and friendship.
It’s a microcosm of what this documentary is about: a select number of MacGowan’s family and friends reminiscing with him about his past, while mostly avoiding talking about his present or future. And it’s obvious to see why. The present-day MacGowan is confined to a wheelchair and barely coherent. Everything he says in the movie—from his past interviews to the interviews that he filmed for this documentary—has to have subtitles, not because of his thick accent but because he’s constantly slurring his words. It should surprise no one that he drinks alcohol during the documentary interviews and never seems to be sober.
On the one hand, “Crock of Gold” (directed by Julien Temple) veers into “hero worship” territory where people are afraid to say the obvious out loud: MacGowan is a mess and a faded shell of his former self. On the other hand, no one really has to say it out loud. It’s all painfully obvious from the footage that’s in the movie.
The problem with making a documentary about an often-incoherent celebrity who rambles a lot is that the documentary can be incoherent and rambling too. Although “Crock of Gold” is worth watching as the definitive visual biography of MacGowan, the movie also tends to be unfocused and repeat itself like, well, a drunk who can’t stop talking about how great he thinks he is. Simply put: This 124-minute movie could’ve used better editing.
There are only so many times that we need to hear MacGowan say how he was chosen by God to save Irish music, or brag about his intoxicated shenanigans over the years, or preach about how much he loves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) before it gets too boring and repetitive. The movie tends to overstate MacGowan’s influence in worldwide pop culture. He’s actually revered mostly in Europe, not so much in other continents. And everyone who participated in this documentary knows that MacGowan made his best music in the 1980s, because that’s the decade that gets the most screen time when discussing MacGowan’s creativity.
When watching “Crock of Gold,” it becomes apparent that the filmmakers couldn’t get a lot of recent interview footage for MacGowan to film for this documentary. Instead, there’s a mishmash of quotes from interviews that MacGowan did over the years for various media outlets. Some of these interviews are shown as archival video clips in the documentary, but most are used as voiceovers. Therefore, viewers can’t really be sure which period of time the voiceover comments were made in, because they’re not identified by year or media outlet.
The other way that “Crock of Gold” fills up its screen time is through animation, stock news footage and a random selection of unrelated film clips to depict MacGowan’s commentary. It’s a technique that documentary aficionados will see right away as an indication that the filmmakers just didn’t have enough original, exclusive footage of MacGowan to fill a feature-length film, so they had to resort to these gimmicks. Ralph Steadman fans will at least enjoy his eye-catching and unique animation of MacGowan’s several tales of hallucinations that MacGowan had while he was stoned. During one of those hallucinations, MacGowan says that he was in a hotel suite in New Zealand sometime in the late 1980s and imagined that blue Māori ghosts were telling him to be just like them, so he proceeded to paint himself and the entire suite blue while naked.
In “Crock of Gold,” there are many references to how MacGowan’s Catholic upbringing shaped him as a person; Irish folklore and “the luck of the Irish”; stereotypes of Irish people being drunks; and the love/hate relationship that MacGowan has with British culture. (He was born in Pembury, Kent, England; was raised in County Tipperary, Ireland; and his family moved back to England when he was 6 years old.) And there are some not-so-subtle comparisons that MacGowan makes of himself to Jesus Christ, just because MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.
In the beginning of the film, MacGowan is heard in a voiceover saying: “It’s God-given. I’ve been chosen to lead us out of the wilderness. God looked down on this little cottage in Ireland and said, ‘That little boy there, he’s the little boy that I’m gonna use to save Irish music and take it to greater popularity than it’s ever had before.'”
Apparently, MacGowan wants to forget about Van Morrison, the first world-famous Irish rock star who had a lot of Irish culture in his music. And, of course, Irish superstar band U2 was a commercial success, years before MacGowan ever released his first album with The Pogues in 1984. U2’s first album, “Boy,” was released in 1980, and U2’s Irish anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released in 1983.
In another voiceover, MacGowan also comments: “I’m sure, because I was born on Christmas Day, I was born lucky. I thank Christ for that.” But is MacGowan so “charmed” and “lucky,” considering all of his health problems and his admitted inability to no longer be the type of creative person he once was? Viewers will have to decide if they would want to be like MacGowan, and how much value should be put on “fame” when fame can’t buy health or happiness.
In the documentary, it’s clear that humility is not one of MacGowan’s virtues. He admits that he can be a difficult and “aggressive” person. And there’s a flash of his bad temper that’s shown during an interview, when he asks a female employee (it’s unclear if she’s a part of the film crew or an assistant), who’s not seen on camera: “Can you put on some recording? Some Northern soul? Tamla Motown?”
She responds by saying it can wait until later, after they’ve finished filming. (Obviously because she knows that having background music would mean having to get clearance for the music rights to use in the film.) MacGowan then snaps haughtily, “No, now! Or I don’t say another fuckin’ word!” It’s quite the display of obnoxious entitlement from a has-been rock star.
That’s not to say that MacGowan didn’t make great music, but even he knows that his relevancy as a prolific music artist is now over. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat this fact, but it also doesn’t fully acknowledge that, given this irrelevancy, MacGowan doesn’t need to be coddled and worshipped as if he’s still making great music. This is very much a nostalgia film for MacGowan and anyone who appreciates the talent he had in the past.
MacGowan’s arrogant tantrum in this movie is an indication of what the filmmakers probably had to go through to get the exclusive interview footage that did end up in the documentary. A producer’s statement in the movie’s production notes confirms that it was difficult for the filmmakers to get MacGowan to open up for new interviews, so they enlisted the help of MacGowan’s wife Clarke and MacGowan’s friends Depp, Gerry Adams (former leader of the Irish political party Sinn Féin) and Bobby Gillespie (lead singer of the Scottish band Primal Scream) to interview him for the documentary.
The unidentified producer comments in the film’s production notes: “Various trips were made to Dublin during the course of 2019 in order to catch Shane in his natural habitat, although only a few attempts proved successful. More nuanced methods were required in order to capture those notorious, honest profundities native to Shane, that Julien was searching for. Ever distrustful of the cameras and any unnecessary lighting equipment, Shane would reveal himself when less proved to be more, surrounded by those he trusted. And it was through these conversations between Shane and this special coterie of specific individuals that the film began to grow.”
Depp’s pub interview with MacGowan is more like a conversation of humorous recollections. Their banter also includes MacGowan saying that before he was famous, he made money as a “rent boy.” MacGowan quips, “Just hand jobs. It’s just a job in hand.” MacGowan also tells Depp that Depp has probably never had to be a rent boy because Depp’s good looks gave him a lot of opportunities. “You’re a sugar cube baby,” MacGowan says to a chuckling Depp. “You’re so cute, you make me sick, actually.”
In another part of the interview, they joke about Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise. (Depp has said that Richards was the biggest influence in how Depp portrays the “Pirates of the Caribbean” character Jack Sparrow. Richards has also appeared in multiple “Pirates” movies as Jack Sparrow’s father.) “What made you think I was able to stay awake during ‘Pirates’?” MacGowan aks Depp. Depp replies with a laugh, “What makes you think I did?,” implying that he had a hard time staying awake too.
MacGowan’s interview with Adams focuses a lot on Irish history. It’s here where MacGowan gives a lot of commentary about his affinity for the IRA and how his songwriting was an extension of his ideological beliefs. MacGowan mentions more than once that he didn’t become an IRA soldier, but he became a musician instead to express his political views.
Gillespie’s conversation with MacGowan is mostly of MacGowan rambling about the music he made with The Pogues and his difficulties in the band. MacGowan gets the most personal and most vulnerable with Clarke, a journalist whom he married in 2018, after several years of being together as a live-in couple. They clearly love each other deeply, not in one of those showboat “I’m married to someone famous” way, but in the “ride or die” way that people who’ve been through the depths of despair together decide to stay together, no matter what.
The movie delves into the darkest parts of MacGowan’s personal history with his own reflections on his harrowing experiences with addiction and mental illness. He describes growing up in a very dysfunctional household, where he was encouraged to drink alcohol and even get drunk from the age of 6. MacGowan explains that a lot of people in Irish culture at the time believed that the younger a person starts drinking alcohol, the less likely that person will become an alcoholic because that person will learn at an early age how to handle alcohol. Obviously, that theory didn’t hold true for MacGowan, who also began smoking and doing drugs before he became a teenager.
The Catholic religion was also a big influence on MacGowan. As a child, MacGowan says he seriously contemplated becoming priest up until the age of 11. He thought it was an ideal job at the time because he saw the perks of the job as being able drink alcohol and smoke whenever he wanted.
“There was booze and cigarettes in heaven. That’s what I was told,” he says in the documentary. As an adolescent, MacGowan says he became so disillusioned with religion that he became an atheist. He mentions that his drug hallucinations about life had something to do with why he changed his mind about religion. But later on in his life, MacGowan says that he made peace with his Catholic upbringing.
Shane and his younger sister Siobhan (who was born in 1963) both say in the documentary that they grew up in a very permissive household. Their father Maurice MacGowan was a department-store clerk whom Shane describes as a “left-wing, IRA socialist supporter,” while Shane’s mother Therese was “beautiful” and “a brilliant singer.”
Maurice, who is now a widower, is interviewed in the documentary. There’s also archival footage of Maurice and Therese interviewed on TV about Shane. Maurice says in “Crock of Gold” how his relationship with Shane changed during Shane’s childhood: “He and I were like pals, until he was 12 and discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc. … and sniffing glue.”
Shane comments that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted as a child, as long as he went to Mass. As an example of how his family was strict about religion but permissive about other things, Shane mentions that his Aunt Nora was the “religious leader” and “religious fanatic” of the family who also gave an underage Shane alcohol and cigarettes and taught him how to gamble. Shane also mentions: “My main hero when I was small was my Uncle John” and Shane says that his Aunt Ellen “was a shit-hot fucking concertina player.”
Shane identifies as Irish, but technically, he’s a British citizen too, since he was born in England and lived there for a great deal of his life. He talks a lot in the film about how moving back to England as a child was a major trauma for him, because Irish people experienced a lot of bigotry and violence from British people. Shane says that Irish people are always negatively stereotyped as being drunks, but he fails to see the irony that he has willingly reinforced that stereotype.
Shane remembers being bullied for being Irish, and he says that he grew to hate British culture. (When playing war games as a child, he says he always wanted to be an IRA soldier, not a British soldier.) And he also expresses his disdain for how British culture places a lot of emphasis on a family’s social class to determine how people will be treated in British society.
However, Shane says that he grew to love British culture too. As a teenager, around the same time that his parents split up, he discovered the London nightlife scene and punk music. The Sex Pistols had an enormous influence on him. (There’s archival footage of Shane in the front row at several punk concerts, including the Sex Pistols.) As for Irish artists, Shane cites poet Brendan Behan as another major influence: “He was the Irish writer I identified with the most.”
Shane’s youthful rebellion and drug addiction were seemingly intertwined. After winning a writing contest, he got a literature scholarship to attend the prestigious Westminster School, but he was expelled when he was caught being a drug dealer to the school’s students. This movie review doesn’t really need to rehash all of the sleazy and horrific drug-addict/alcoholic stories about him, some of which he talks about in the film. Tabloids, other media outlets and Shane himself have exhausted that topic.
However, Shane mentions that his parents let him and his druggie friends party a lot at the MacGowan household because his parents thought it was safer for them to do drugs in the house instead of in random places. Shane says that the most frightening experience that he had with drugs was when he was a teenager and took LSD with two friends named Jez and Sarah. Unfortunately, Sarah freaked out during her acid trip and threatened to jump off of the apartment’s balcony, while his father got very angry at what was going on.
Luckily, they were able to talk Sarah off of the balcony and she changed her mind about killing herself. And shortly afterward, she ended up becoming Shane’s girlfriend. (He describes seeing rainbows when they had sex.) This near-death experience with Sarah didn’t scare Shane off of drugs though, because he seems to almost be proud for being known as a hardcore alcoholic/drug addict who’s survived longer than people thought he would.
Shane is also candid about his mental-health struggles, which he’s talked about before in many other interviews. He says in the documentary: “I had my first nervous breakdown at 6 years old,” which he says was triggered because he was so unhappy in England. Later in the documentary, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice talk about the times that Shane was involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities and the heartbreak it caused the family. They both say that Shane was never really the same after The Pogues’ grueling 1988 tour, which they believe broke him in many ways.
The documentary doesn’t reveal anything new about Shane’s career as a musician before, during and after The Pogues, a now-defunct band that was formed in 1982. There’s the expected archival concert footage and interviews of Shane and The Pogues over the years, but his former band mates are not interviewed for this documentary. The filmmakers wisely chose to not interview talking heads who are music industry “experts,” because that would go against Shane’s enduring punk spirit.
Frank Murray, the manager of The Pogues from 1985 to 1990, died in 2016, at the age of 66. Shane describes Murray as someone who acted like he wanted to be another member of The Pogues. And he mentions that Murray got a 20% cut of all of The Pogues’ concert revenues and music publishing. Siobhan hints that Murray was a greedy taskmaster because she partially blames the unrelenting Pogues tour schedule in 1988 as being the reason for Shane’s massive nervous breakdown that year.
Even before the breakdown, Shane says that he was getting sick of being in the band, which had commercial success with hit songs such as “Fairytale of New York” and “The Irish Rover.” In “Crock of Gold,” Shane repeats the story about how he went into a coma, after falling out of a van while the band was on a 1991 tour in Japan. When he woke up from the coma, the rest of the band fired him because his out-of-control drinking and drugging made him too unreliable.
Shane says his ouster from the Pogues was a “relief” for him. He went on to form another band (The Popes) and launched a solo career, but his creative output after The Pogues wasn’t as well-received by fans or critics. He gives credit to “Fairtyale of New York” duet partner Kirsty MacColl (who died in a boating accident in 2000, at the age of 41) for making the song the big hit that it was, but he also expresses mixed feelings about having that type of popularity.
By contrast, Shane doesn’t have much that’s good to say about Elvis Costello, who produced The Pogues’ 1985 second album “Rum Sodomy & the Lash,” which had the hit song “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” Shane says he fired Costello from producing the follow-up album to “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” because Costello was a “fat fuck” who was on a health-food diet and didn’t tolerate Shane’s decadent lifestyle. Shane also says that he wanted to fire Costello earlier, but the situation was complicated because Costello was romantically involved at the time with Pogues bassist Caitlin O’Riordan, who left the band in 1986. Costello and O’Riordan were married from 1986 to 2002.
But if you think “Crock of Gold” has Shane sharing a lot of inside stories about his musicianship or songwriting process, forget it. Except for a brief explanation of what inspired “Instrument of Death” (the first song he says he wrote) and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” Shane doesn’t give further insight into how he crafted any of his songs. Most likely, his brain is too fried to remember a lot of great stories that he could’ve told about what it was like to create some of his songs that his fans love the most.
Instead, “Crock of Gold” seems intent on reminding people about Shane’s legacy in music. The end of the film includes footage from the 60th birthday tribute to Shane that was held at Dublin’s National Concert Hall in January 2018. Guest artists included U2 lead singer Bono, Nick Cave, Sinéad O’Connor, Gillespie and Depp. At the show, Shane was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Ireland president Michael D. Higgins.
When interviewer Adams asks Shane if he’s writing any new songs, Shane replies, “I’ve run out of inspiration at the moment.” In the interview with Clarke, she asks Shane what he wishes most to happen in his life. His response: “I’d like to prolifically write songs again.” And then, he gives a long pause before adding, “And I’d like to be able to play pool.”
Although anyone can see the damaging effects of Shane’s alcoholism and drug addiction (he will only admit to giving up heroin), his family members insist in the documentary that Shane doesn’t really want to die. These declarations from his family members can either be considered being optimistic or being in denial.
His sister Siobhan comments, “I certainly don’t think he has a death wish. It’s probably the opposite. He’s probably one of the people who doesn’t accept death at all, I don’t think.” Shane’s wife echoes that belief: “People think he’s got a death wish. When in actual fact, that’s not the case. He just doesn’t enjoy life without a drink.”
Even though Shane hasn’t lost his sense of humor, it’s clear that he’s deeply unhappy when he thinks about how he’ll never be able to recapture his glory days. His eyes also express a lot of fear and sadness when he talks about how his creative output isn’t what it used to be. For all of the tales that are told in “Crock of Gold” about sex, drugs and rock and roll, people can judge for themselves how it all worked out for Shane MacGowan and if his lifestyle choices were really worth it in the end.
Magnolia Pictures released “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD and DVD on December 4, 2020.