It takes a certain kind of person to become a rockstar. There’s talent involved, of course; one has to have that innate ability to perform, the skill to play an instrument, sing (scream?) a song, etc. But there’s also a necessary ego required, undoubtedly, some inner voice telling you that you can—and should—stand up in front of a crowd and entertain them. Which is probably what makes documentaries about rockstars so inherently interesting, regardless of their subject and especially when it’s the artist themselves telling their story. Such is the case for Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan. As the title implies, Julien Temple’s film is essentially a series of informal conversations over a few drinks with the Irish punk rocker best known as lead singer of The Pogues (and later The Popes). And what stories he has to tell…
Produced by Johnny Depp (who also appears in conversation with MacGowan throughout the film), Crock of Gold is a fitting tribute to an aging rocker who, in his day, defined the punk aesthetic with his unkempt hair and missing teeth, constant binge drinking and a give-no-fucks attitude toward anything even slightly considered “mainstream.” Now in his 60s, MacGowan is showing the wear and tear of his hard-drinking, hard-partying ways; compounded by a 2015 fall that severely broke his pelvis and relegated him to a wheelchair, MacGowan has plenty to say, he’s just slower in delivering his quips and wit these days. His words are slurred, not because he’s still drunk but because he spent so many years absolutely sloshed that it’s taken a physical toll. Nevertheless, MacGowan seems to be in good spirits in his conversations with Depp, Gerry Adams (former political leader of Sinn Féin), musician Bobby Gillespie and others as he recounts his earliest days in County Tipperary, his unexpected rise to fame and his many, many adventures along the way.
Temple includes plenty of archival footage and even some new, animated sequences to help MacGowan tell his story; without the benefit of news footage to commemorate it, the scene illustrating the day he was handed his first drink as a kid (a double-double whiskey concoction in a bottle that he downed in one sitting) is particularly clever (and also…slightly insane?). MacGowan explains how he turned to music sort of by accident; a poor student and lacking much direction at all in his life, he found he could craft some lyrics and plunk out a tune, the former in a say-it-like-it-is, work-a-day blunt style that would become the band’s trademark. A series of encounters found MacGowan and his bandmates recording an album produced by none other than Elvis Costello; but not even that sort of industry endorsement ruffled the Irishman, who recounts how he kicked Costello out of the booth when he tried to over-produce the band’s sound.
Though much of MacGowan’s fame came from his image—the busted teeth, the heavy drinking—the film goes to lengths to remind audiences of The Pogues’s well-earned, global fame in the early 1990s, often performing grueling show schedules on tours from the U.K. to Japan and back again without a break. If the drinking took a toll on MacGowan, so did the unrelenting touring schedule; as he became more and more unreliable under the strain, his bandmates eventually had enough and kicked him out, a moment in his career MacGowan now looks back on as a relief. He’s also quick to remind whoever is listening that just because he was drinking all the time, he wasn’t always drunk and he certainly wasn’t always checked out. Indeed, he managed to write lyrics and songs in practically any state, drunk or sober.
By the end of Crock of Gold, it’s a bit of a surprise that MacGowan has survived his whirlwind life at all; weaker men have surely been felled by less. But with a new marriage keeping him feeling young, a moving tribute on his 60th birthday (including Bono, Nick Cave and others paying their respects) and plenty of good friends to keep up the conversation with, he’s as chatty and spry as ever. Whether you spent the ’90s a fan of The Pogues or are just meeting MacGowan for the first time, Crock of Gold makes warm, enjoyable work of getting to know him a bit better.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan is now streaming via Siskel Film Center’s Virtual Cinema from Your Sofa program; a portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s closed.
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