This full-length profile of the former Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan emerges just as the annual debate over the lyrics of his biggest hit, Fairytale of New York, gets into full swing. While the controversy is not specifically addressed here, you have to wonder how the defund-the-BBC types will react to MacGowan’s enthusiastic endorsement of Irish uprisings against the British and adoration of the IRA – “I felt ashamed I didn’t have the guts to join [them],” he says at one point.
There’s a lot of interest in here, even if many of the anecdotes are well worn: MacGowan’s early years in Tipperary, his schooldays in Tunbridge Wells and the Barbican, and his formative time in the late 70s punk circuit. It’s an hour in before we even get to the Pogues, none of whose members are interviewed here; instead, it’s his sister Siobhan and father Maurice who make the most telling contributions. The former is no-nonsense and direct, telling of her awe when she first heard audiences chanting her brother’s name and her decision to commit him to a psychiatric clinic in the late 80s. MacGowan Sr, on the other hand, sniffs with entertainingly Celtic disgust over his teenage son’s burgeoning interest in Anglo-American rock: “He discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival!”
Julian Temple, with his long experience of filming recalcitrant punk-rock types, is probably the only director who could have made this film work: MacGowan clearly doesn’t want to be interviewed and is not really in optimal physical shape to be. Instead, Temple assembles an artful bricolage with snippets of recordings, archive raids, filmed reconstruction and his trademark hand-drawn animation. In what probably seemed like a smart tactic at the time, Temple also has a bunch of MacGowan’s friends – including Johnny Depp (who is one of the film’s producers), Bobby Gillespie and, improbably, Gerry Adams – to try and draw MacGowan out; but these sessions really don’t add a great deal. It’s like listening to barflies arguing about the change.
In the end, the film operates best as an act of ancestor-worship to an extraordinary musician whose best days – we are forced to sadly conclude – appear to be behind him. Death stalks the film, and not just because MacGowan has defied the odds after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Early on, he reveals his preoccupation with the ghosts of his dead relatives (which prompted his return to Catholicism) as well the victims of the Irish famine whose bones he says he accidentally unearthed on a beach in Mayo (resulting in The Dunes, which he gave to Ronnie Drew to record). For all that, MacGowan is still a life force to be reckoned with.