Shane MacGowan in documentary “Crock of Gold.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“If I should fall from grace with God
Where no doctor can relieve me
If I’m buried ’neath the sod
But the angels won’t receive me

Let me go, boys
Let me go, boys
Let me go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry.”

— The Pogues, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”

Within the first few seconds of “Crock of Gold,” there are subtitles. Julien Temple’s documentary about the life and career of the Irish singer, songwriter and former frontman of The Pogues is in English, sure, but when Shane MacGowan speaks, the uninitiated will be grateful for the help. At least at first. 

MacGowan is now over 60. Thanks to a nasty fall a few years ago, he uses a wheelchair. His legendarily rotten teeth have since been replaced with a monumental set of human-looking choppers, although the slushy voice that emerges now is just as difficult to parse as his youthful ramble. MacGowan’s head lists to one side in a manner that draws inevitable comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in “My Left Foot.” That, of course, being a movie about Christy Brown, a hard-drinking Irish artist whose inarguable brilliance warred throughout his life with a streak of reckless self-destruction. 

Only the older MacGowan, in this loving, inevitably harrowing portrait (playing through PMA Films) makes the cantankerous case that it’s never been about that. “I have no self-destructive influences whatsoever,” he insists effortfully at one point, a drink in hand. “Anyone with a death wish should be dead – it’s not that difficult to do.” 

There’s a strange poetry there, something that fans of MacGowan and The Pogues’ music will recognize all throughout the now elder music statesman’s narration of this compelling, sometimes frustrating two-hour documentary. MacGowan’s early life through his music career with The Pogues and later backup band The Popes all emerge, in MacGowan’s mumble and Temple’s fractured, sometimes too-effortful visuals, as a grand tale, grounded in the mud and blood of Irish poverty, questionable parenting and sectarian violence, right though to worldwide stardom as MacGowan and his bandmates sought to craft a uniquely Irish musical voice. If nothing else, “Crock of Gold,” with its steadfast view of MacGowan’s place among Ireland’s greatest earthy literary geniuses (Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Flann O’Brien), makes the convincing case that this seemingly dissolute wastrel deserves his spot. That the film is co-sponsored by the Maine Irish Heritage Center only lends some further credence. 

That’s a tall order, and Temple’s hyper, flashy style sometimes gets in the way. Produced by Johnny Depp (a longtime drinking buddy of MacGowan’s who shows up periodically to lift a pint and put on his own approximation of an Irish pub accent), the film, at times, leans into the deification of problematic, self-abusing, bright-burning geniuses that Depp gravitates toward. (And increasingly resembles.) Depp also narrated Alex Gibney’s documentary about the late, substance-gobbling writer Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo,” and, at its glibbest, “Crock of Gold” plays like a shallower portrait than it is. At one point, the intermittent animation (of an Australian tour hotel room freakout where MacGowan painted his naked body blue at the behest of Maori ghost-warriors) even shamelessly apes the style of longtime Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.  

And Shane MacGowan draws those sorts of fans, unabashedly. The Pogues represent, among other things, the finest drinking songs ever made, with beer-swilling college boys (and I was most definitely one) feeling the half-sentimental, half-boorish camaraderie of the pub – right there in their expensive dorm rooms. But MacGowan himself proves a canny and insightful deconstructionist of his own work in the film, and its place straddling the worlds of traditional Irish music and the primal screams of punk. With the ability to shift gears from aching balladry to rip-roaring fury and back again – often in the space of a verse – MacGowan’s writing encompasses what he and the film convincingly depict as the fraught and furious pain and pleasure of it all. 

MacGowan performing on stage in 1986. Photo by Andrew Catlin/courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

At the center of everything, of course, is Shane MacGowan. From his seemingly decrepit present-day perch at various bars, he looks depleted. But his words, as slurred and effortful as they are, emerge from a mind inexplicably alive, and yearning. Newly married at 60, MacGowan looks back at a life right out of Irish folklore – yet utterly of its tumultuous time. Born on Christmas Day, drinking and singing for his family from the age of 3, MacGowan went to London, becoming a fixture on the early punk scene. (We see him thrashing – and bleeding – heedlessly in the crowd at an early Sex Pistols show.) Drugs, sex, depression and drink all culminated in six months in the notorious Bedlam hospital. A band and friends joined the mix, and The Pogues’ success brought only more excess and exhaustion (the band toured 363 days one year), until MacGowan was tossed out of the band on tour in Japan. 

And in interviews through it all, we can track this strange (some might say alarming) looking gangly creature, answering questions with barely comprehensible words that carry unexpected (some might say impossible) wisdom. And poetry. At various times in the film, family and friends talk about their (and doctors’) conviction that Shane wouldn’t last another six months. That Shane MacGowan is still not just alive but thoughtful, ambitious (he claims he wants to write prolifically again) and seemingly indestructible suggests nothing so much but that Shane MacGowan is, indeed, Ireland eternal. 

Late in the film, MacGowan claims to “(expletive) hate” “Fairytale of New York,” unquestionably The Pogues most enduring song. Take that with a pint, as MacGowan also speaks eloquently about how his simultaneously heartbreaking, hilarious and vicious love duet with the late Kirsty MacColl was a high point in his songwriting and career. The musical reminiscences of a pair of aging lovers whose disillusionment emerges in both boozy vituperation and heartbreaking tenderness, “Fairytale of New York” is all about the pain and pleasure of it all. As the older Shane MacGowan sums up in “Crock of Gold,” “Cram as much pleasure as you can into life and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result – and then wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure.”

“Crock of Gold” is available to rent though PMA Films. The rental is $12, with part of the proceeds going directly to the Portland Museum of Art. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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