I was 12 years old the first time I heard The Pogues on St. Patrick’s Day in 1990. They were the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” and I remember thinking, “That singer is really drunk.” Eleven years later, nearly to the day, I found myself hitchhiking 250 miles to see Shane MacGowan and the Popes at First Avenue in Minneapolis. With no ticket and no money, I somehow still got into the show — and the singer was still really drunk.
Needless to say, I’ve been a fan of MacGowan and his various musical endeavors (especially The Pogues) for quite some time — and this appreciation is reflected in my love for Crock of Gold, the documentary about his life. However, in the interest of full disclosure, if you don’t share this fandom on some level, Crock of Gold may leave you a bit lost or even confused.
Helped by wonderfully anarchic animation and spectacular archival footage, Crock of Gold moves seamlessly from MacGowan’s whiskey-soaked and music-filled childhood in rural Ireland to the chaos and vice of London’s emerging punk scene. Director Julian Temple (Earth Girls Are Easy) blends these seemingly disparate worlds with a riotous celebration of their rebellious similarities, culminating in the formation of The Pogues in 1982.
At a glance, it may be hard to understand why MacGowan could possibly be so revered in so many circles, but through Temple’s examination of the singer-songwriter’s exceptionally tumultuous career, an undeniable beauty punches through the unrefined veneer. MacGowan is not pretty, and neither is his story, but both are so full of life you can’t help but sing along and toast to times long gone.
On some levels, Crock of Gold is a familiar tale of rock ’n’ roll debauchery, but it cuts much deeper than what’s typically expected of these kinds of stories. The excesses are there, but so is an abundance of literature, history, philosophy and poetry. MacGowan — now in his 60s and using a wheelchair — is no dope and lacks the arrogance that often accompanies “artists” who have been called a genius one too many times. He would rather discuss Brendan Behan and bemoan Yeats or talk IRA history over wine than ever hear “Fairytale of New York” again. He’s an artist who’s proud of his accomplishments but humbled by the life he’s survived.
MacGowan tells his story in his own words — assisted by subtitles to decipher his permanently slurred speech, likely a result of his heavy boozing — with minimal regret and plenty of unruly spirit. And while Crock of Gold doesn’t skimp on the pitfalls of a fast life, it doesn’t condemn it either. By means of MacGowan’s in-depth and often firsthand looks at society from the bottom up, The Pogues redefined what rebellious music could sound like when performed with style and intelligence. Temple’s film is a fitting accompaniment to their many unforgettable songs and a deserving tribute to one of the great artists of our time.
Available to rent via grailmoviehouse.com