Legendary British documentary and music video director Julien Temple is, in his own way, punk rock royalty.
A lifelong chronicler of music’s most fascinating and transgressive figures, as well as often being credited with “inventing” the music video as an art form, Temple has directed two Sex Pistols films – 1980’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and 2000’s The Filth And The Fury – as well as the cult David Bowie film Absolute Beginners and 2007’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.
Unlike most music docs, his approach has always been one that captures the beating heart of music movements, addressing his subjects with raw honesty, and capturing the ephemeral ecstasy of live performances and the rock’n’roll lifestyle. In Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, Temple found his next, and possibly most challenging subject… For starters, MacGowan was reluctant to sit down with the director and do interviews.
Using a mix of interviews between MacGowan and friends/acquaintances, period footage and animation, Temple has crafted Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, a fascinating and layered portrait of the man who went from being one of the most famous punk fans in London to the scabrous troubadour that founded The Pogues.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan is a great title that refers to drinking, but sounds a lot like a boxing match. How knocked out did you feel after filming this film?
I was on the ropes on a number of occasions! Shane’s a difficult motherfucker, but without being able to tell you to fuck off, he wouldn’t be Shane MacGowan, would he? It’s part of his DNA and his brand. So, yeah, I had to weigh up whether I wanted to put myself through it. He’s a fascinating subject, but I wasn’t sure about it, especially the first time I met him – it was a shock to me, and I think it is to the people who are watching the film when you see him for the first time as he is now. I wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to do the film, as well as whether I could take the abuse involved in making it. He made it very clear he didn’t want to do any interviews, so it was a hard call. But in a way, Johnny Depp was the clincher – I’ve known him for a long time. He used to babysit my daughter [actress Juno Temple]. So, when he got involved, I thought that there would be a good chance of finishing the film at least! Johnny got him talking and then we thought about other people that Shane might like to talk to.
People like Johnny Depp, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and even former leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams.
We asked a lot of people who said no, too. Like The Pogues, for example. So, we got what we got. They had to satisfy two conditions: one, that Shane would talk to them, and two, that they would want to talk to Shane… Which narrowed the amount of people quite considerably. But as difficult as Shane made it, that in itself made this a better film. Because if you did have a lot of talking head interviews with Shane, with a big camera crew, you get the authorised version of Shane. Whereas we were forced to go and do a more journalistic approach and dig out old footage and unseen, candid stuff. And that’s probably a more revealing, rawer version of Shane than conventional interviews.
There are still a few shots in the film where he’s not happy with you at all.
Yeah, and you’ve got to convince yourself it’s endearing more than anything else, and then move on. It was a risk and a challenge, but I do seem to be drawn to those things. I’m a masochist, I guess.
Your approach does offer up a more multifaceted portrait of MacGowan.
The conversations he has with others mean that you get to see all the versions of Shane, and the film touches a lot upon self-mythology and the creation of self. He’s a fascinating figure – a first generation Irish immigrant who grew up in Kent and who connects so strongly to the summers he spent in Tipperary and to his Irishness… And all of this when being Irish in England was difficult, to say the least. This is a part of how he has been able to create such a huge body of work and how he has been able to create versions of himself.
It is a portrait of contradictions, too: an Irish boy in England, the public-school boy versus the punk, the way his accent changes.
Right. When I met him during the punk days, he was more Guy Ritchie than Guy Ritchie, you know? You would never have dreamt he’d been at Westminster School, let alone been Irish. There’s a lot of self-invention that goes all the way through his life. Not that that’s something to hold against anyone – it’s an important part of everyone’s life, and we all do it to some extent.
You met him in 1976 for the first time – what was it about him that drew you to him?
I was filming the early punk scene, particularly The Clash and even more so The Sex Pistols, and the crowd was a huge part of that moment. It made it very different from earlier moments of rock’n’roll when the band is on stage and then disappear. With the punk scene, the crowd were very much a part of the theatre of the event. The band would hang out with the crowd after the gigs, and the crowd had a huge importance. The focus at the time was Sid Vicious, before he joined the Pistols, who was the king of the crowd at these gigs. And when he did join the band, there was a kind of vacancy. Shane took that place at the front of the crowd, becoming the focal point. He created his own space in the crowd, radiating energy from the stage. If you were filming a gig, your camera would stop on him. He was so into it, but you would never have dreamt that he would become the Irish legend we know.
I tried to do was hunt down the different versions of Shane and turn it around like a prism, without demonising or canonising him.
How do you go about balancing the tone of a movie about Shane MacGowan without falling into either hagiography or sad-sack territory? You can’t be seen to glorify alcohol or excessive drug use, but you can’t condone it either because it’s such an integral part of the character and the mythology around him.
Yeah, I think it makes for an interesting viewing experience because he’s still got this scabrous wit and sharpness of humour. You’re laughing a lot when you’re with the guy, but it does become a hard watch because the legacy of that substance abuse does have a sobering aspect. What I tried to do was hunt down the different versions of Shane and turn it around like a prism, without demonising or canonising him. The contradictions are the sparks that make creativity possible. You can’t avoid the drugs, because it’s such a big part of Shane and the triumph of Shane – he wouldn’t have written these songs in the same way had it not been for that. But I don’t want to lecture people – let them make their own minds up about him, the drink, the drugs… But there is a fallout of that, a cautionary tale. Just not one I want to judgementalise and moralise about.
What was Shane’s reaction to seeing the film?
I just read an interview in which he said I was an upper-middleclass motherfucker and that I showed him as a miserable bastard. (Laughs) I don’t know – he was never going to like a film about him. I wasn’t there when he saw the film for the first time, but apparently, he was in floods of tears. So I’ve been told. And I can understand that it can’t have been an easy watch for him.
Regarding the look of the film, you’ve included animated segments and drawings from Ralph Steadman. How did that idea come about?
I’ve worked with animation before and really enjoy it. I first did it with the Pistols for The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and got into trouble for that: “We’re not fucking cartoons!” But Sid Vicious was a cartoon, in a way. But here, it was to emphasise the different versions of Shane and the unreliable narrator aspect. It was also a way to show the Grimm fairy tale aspect of his childhood – the beginning is very Disney, progressively going to Orwell’s Animal Farm animation, and then The Beano sort of animation. I liked playing with the history of animation and approaching different styles in order to mirror different aspects of Shane’s life.
One song that gets trotted out all the time when thinking about Shane and The Pogues is ‘Fairytale Of New York’, which also appears in the film. I’ve always wondered about the cultural obsession with this song, which gets a lot of airplay around Christmas, and how little it represents Shane, due to it being a much more sanitised song compared to the rest of his songwriting.
It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? One thing is that it’s a song that avoids the real Shane MacGowan, because he’s such a subversive, passionate and political songwriter, and his best songs are much sharper edged. A lot of people only know that one song, and smothering him in this one song is a way of muzzling him, in a way. It’s a way of diffusing him and not having to confront his work in the context of the relations between England and Ireland. It’s still a great song, an anti-Christmas song, and he gets a huge present every year from the royalties, so that’s something. And it’s interesting because his whole life is bound up with Christmas – he’s born on Christmas Day, his most recognised song is about Christmas… I don’t think he likes that very much.
A little off-topic now, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about David Bowie, with whom you filmed ’Absolute Beginners’ and directed several music videos.
I was very lucky to know him and had a very intense connection with him for a few years. He was a fantastic person to collaborate with. I’m always very sad to remember that he’s not around anymore, because I always thought he was the future. I’ve got an anecdote for you – I did this music video with him which was more of a short film, called Jazzin’ for Blue Jean. It was interesting because he played David Jones, as well as David Bowie, and what I understood about him was that he was so normal on so many levels. He was the boy next door, capable of being boring. There were times when I would think “Is this really David Bowie?” And then, all of a sudden, he could transform himself into this interplanetary God-like figure.
It was a weird thing watching him, walking down the street with him and seeing people not even say anything to him but wanting to touch his aura, if you will. And there’s me thinking “He’s just been really boring for the last half-hour!” That may sound callous, but there’s a truth in it. He talked a lot to me about his brother, who’s schizophrenic, and how much he learned from his brother on a creative level. And there was an element of split-personality within David that made him able to reach so many people on so many different levels, encouraging them to find this gold inside them, in the same way he’d been able to transcend his own limitations.
You’ve filmed The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bowie, now MacGowan. Are there any other musicians you’re aching to work with?
Oh, lots! Art Pepper springs to mind, and Tom Waits is someone I’ve been trying to persuade to do something with for a while. His version of America is fascinating, but he’s very reluctant.
If you can get Shane MacGowan, surely Tom Waits is possible.