The first inkling that this isn’t just a music documentary is the glassy, drunken eyes of the 60-something Shane MacGowan. The contrast with the young MacGowan at the prime of his life, growling out the lyrics to “Fairytale of New York” at the start of this understated documentary, is stark. Director Julien Temple, himself considered punk rock royalty for his music documentaries including Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (NZIFF 2006) and Oil City Confidential (NZIFF 2009), frames MacGowan's story as a quiet triumph, the triumph being that he is somehow still alive after a life of addiction. The portrait-like shots of MacGowan taken for the film echo out a warning about dependency.
This cautionary tale is also a one of Irish patriotism, the country’s recent history at the fore. It’s the tale of an incredible literary tradition in Ireland being continued by an unlikely punk rock musician. As the singer recounts his upbringing in rural Tipperary, his meteoric rise to fame in London and his descent into heroin addiction, he also charts Ireland’s journey from The Great Hunger of the 1840s through to the Troubles in the latter half of the 20th century.
Shane MacGowan’s folkloric story is swiftly layered with animated sequences of MacGowan’s early life, archival footage of punk gigs, and casual, boozy interviews with the wheezing, hissing MacGowan of today. Six decades of substance abuse have taken their toll on the frontman, but the poet who wrote such aching ballads as “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon” shines through his slurred words and vacant stare. “I’m just following the Irish way of life,” he says. “Cram as much pleasure as you can into life and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result.” — Steph Walker, Caitlin Abley