Irish Film Festival

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Two reviews by Steve Carey

Shane MacGowan: A Crock of Gold

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A Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, A Documentary Written and Directed by Julien Temple. 2020

This is the story of the songwriter and lead singer of The Pogues, who famously grabbed traditional Irish ballads and gave them a punk twist. MacGowan is almost as famous for his drinking and the calamity that is his gob, which even had its own show: the procedure to replace his long-gone natural teeth was the subject of an hour-long TV program, A Wreck Reborn. Fracturing his pelvis in a fall, he is now wheelchair-bound, damaged by lifelong alcohol abuse and bouts of heroin. His words in the movie require subtitles. He was introduced to alcohol before he was in his teens, and it’s said (though not here) that his heroin use ended in 2001 when Sinead O’Connor shopped him to the cops.

MacGowan was born in Tunbridge Wells, of all places, and though he spent happy summers on the farm in Tipperary, he grew up, reluctantly, in England, attending Westminster School on a scholarship, until given the boot for dealing speed and barbiturates to his fellow (presumably dilated) pupils. Already troubled by mental health issues, which he attributes to life as an Irish country boy at heart trapped in a hostile England and to his parents breaking up, he found acceptance in freak-friendly punk London in 1977. Punk validated his attitude and gave him confidence to perform (The Nipple Erectors, no less), but the breakthrough came when he smeared the sneer across Irish music, setting it ablaze with a joyous Saturday night energy fuelled by alcohol. He played a major role in transforming the cartoon image of the Irish from thick Paddy, the butt of Bernard Manning jokes, fit only for navvying and balaclava-clad terrorism, into a politically engaged people with a rich and joyful culture who know how to have a good time – no less of a stereotype, but at least an enviable one.

MacGowan himself has always been a keen Republican, and ex-Provisional IRA President Gerry Adams comes to sit at his feet and offer praise. When The Pogues launched, Adams was portrayed on British television as the devil incarnate, his words unbroadcastable (but voiced by an actor, rendering the ban pointless). MacGowan claims to regret lacking the courage to join the IRA, but he would have been a bigger threat to discipline and his comrades than to the enemy, and in any case has served his country far better as a poet and a singer. 

The story has its villains. MacGowan is still bitter about one-time manager Frank Murray, who toured the band relentlessly for his 20%. Johnny Depp, whose production company infinitum nihil was instrumental in getting the film made, appears as the kind of friend MacGowan does not need, happy to splash about in spilt booze, fag ash and incoherent non-stories. There is one good gag: ‘What makes you think I didn’t fall asleep watching The Pirates?’ slurs MacGowan, teasingly alluding to Depp’s most commercially successful role in Pirates of the Caribbean. Retorts Depp: ‘What makes you think didn’t?’

Much more sympathetic are two key women in his life, sister Siobhan and wife Victoria Mary Clarke. Both evidently love him and are willing to take him on his terms, though they are neither blind to nor silent on the ways substance abuse has prevented him from connecting, both with others and with his own best self.

MacGowan’s anarchic spirit is well served by Julien Temple, who writes and directs, bringing a lifetime of music filmmaking and a keen sense of place and time. We get Irish myth and social history, stirred in with animation, talking animals and plentiful and judicious original footage. At two hours, the move is twenty minutes too long, but we’re kept well entertained along the way.

Temple found that MacGowan’s inner circle was vital, because it was only with them that the movie’s subject would let down his guard. He raises necessary questions about the bottle and the damage done. MacGowan disdains our pity: he’s his own man. But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? It’s argued by his sister that the state he’s in now comes not, as might be imagined, from a self-destructive urge, but from a raging thirst to drain life to the dregs. Either way, the poster boy for living every day and all night like a Pogues gig is a health warning, rather than an invitation.

The climax of the movie is a 60th birthday celebration, featuring a beautifully touching duet between MacGowan and Nick Cave. The rapturous reception – Ireland’s President Higgins turns up to present an award – recognises MacGowan as a rare and important talent, and it is possible though perhaps unlikely that we may not have heard the last of him.

Jack Charlton, ‘A Dictator, But a Nice One’

Finding Jack Charlton, Directed by Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas, and featuring interviews with Paul McGrath, David O’Leary, Packie Bonner and U2’s Larry Mullen. 2020

Jack Charlton died last year an honorary Irishman, ‘a strange breath of fresh air,’ as U2’s Larry Mullen puts it: ‘an Englishman that we loved, somehow.’ Charlton’s last spoken words in this thoughtful and moving film are bitterly ironic, recollecting former glories: ‘That is a memory that will live with us all as long as we live.’ Charlton took Ireland through Euro 1988 and two World Cups, memories that few who watched are likely to forget. Except Charlton himself: he outlived his memories, dying with dementia. We see him peering at film of his younger self, uncomprehending. From a man little troubled by doubt or indecision, he’s collapsed into someone who literally doubts himself: ‘I’ve no idea,’ he shrugs, scared, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Movingly, however, he does recognise Paul McGrath, presented here as the living personification of all that was dysfunctional about Ireland when Charlton was headhunted in 1985 to be the nation’s football manager. A man of colour and the son of a single white mother, McGrath spent his first eighteen years in an orphanage, building his body so he would get beaten less often. Charlton, hardly an avuncular let alone a paternal figure, became a surrogate father, putting his arm around the younger man’s shoulder as he sat on his bed, shivering with the DTs. When he played for Ireland, McGrath was playing for Charlton, he says, his greatest triumph nullifying Roberto Baggio as Ireland beat Italy in the 1994 World Cup.

McGrath had been disappointed at the appointment of an Englishman, ‘Union Jack’ as the banners put it at the time, as the boss of the Irish team. Charlton was walking into an unhappy Ireland, with no jobs, no divorce, no abortion, no place for single mothers, no great affection for the English and nothing to keep its best and brightest from heading overseas as fast as they could get away. Yet if McGrath embodied Ireland’s unhappiness, Charlton somehow came to symbolise a new Ireland growing in confidence and optimism, the nascent Celtic tiger. By the time he left in 1996, Mary Robinson was President and few felt the need to head overseas. The football stadium was the new church.

To win over the haters and the sceptics, Charlton had four things going for him: a World Cup winner’s confidence, a ferocious competitiveness, a blunt northern English working-class background and an easy way with Everyman. He had far more in common with the poor people of Dublin than with the rich of London. In time it blossomed into a love affair: Charlton had self-belief to spare, and Ireland desperately needed some. Together they didn’t exactly conquer the world – the summit of their achievement was winning in the last 16 in Italia ’90 – but on their day Charlton’s Ireland were a team capable of beating anyone, including Brazil, Italy and, most satisfyingly, England.

The team’s kitman speaks glowingly of being treated as a key member of the team, and of Charlton as a ‘master of man management.’ This is certainly to overstate it, for in truth Charlton was a poor listener with so little interest in anyone’s opinion that he didn’t even pretend. ‘Be a dictator, but a nice one,’ reads one of his notes from the time. ‘I distrust centre-backs who can play,’ observes the ex-centre back: ‘I like centre-backs who stop others from playing.’ He jokes at his own expense that he’d left his mark on players throughout Europe, and famously kept a little black book of those he’d earmarked, indeed stud-marked, for special attention. According to brother Bobby, he carried the famously tough Leeds United team for years. He wasn’t going to buckle in Ireland.

Hundreds of Charlton’s handwritten notes like the one quoted above have survived, as unlikely as that may be, and they feature in the movie as a counterweight to the gaping holes in the old Charlton’s memory. As you’d expect there’s lots of little-seen footage from the various campaigns, including the gruesome sound of Chris de Burgh serenading Charlton with Hey Jack to the tune of Hey Jude after defeat in the quarter-final of Italia 90 (as if they hadn’t suffered enough).

Subtly, something of the fractious relationship between Ireland and England echoes that of Jack and his more famous younger brother Bobby, not an honorary Irishman but a Sir, a member of the British establishment through and through. Although they played together in England’s only World Cup-winning team in 1966, that’s not enough: sentiment demands the brothers love each other like, well, like brothers. But neither was ever a demonstrative type, and both were grimly focused on success on their own terms. Jack could win over Ireland, but not his brother, and their failure to connect runs through the movie as a sad motif.

In one thing the brothers were united: both developed dementia. Perhaps it was heading those heavy sodden leather footballs thousands of times. Was it worth it, asks the movie, in the end? Jack’s wife and son believe so, even if Jack was no longer able to enjoy his memories. As the movie ends, we see him, sitting alone, singing along to Blayden Races, lost. Goodnight, Jack. Sleep well. 

Steve is a Joycean and an avid cinemagoer.

Thin Lizzy, Not Meant to End in 1983

Film review by Peter Gavin

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Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away, Directed by Emer Reynolds for Long Play Music Films, 2020

Internationally acknowledged Irish rock stars were rare, in the years before U2 and the Boomtown Rats, but Phil Lynott, a black Irish singer, musician, and songwriter was one. His most commercially successful group was Thin Lizzy, of which he was a founding member, the principal songwriter, lead vocalist and bass player. 

The title of this documentary is named after the Thin Lizzy song, A Song For While I’m Away, and the documentary shares a title with Phil Lynott’s poetry book. Yes, Phil was a published poet! His two books of published poetry were brought together in a single volume, titled Songs For While I’m Away after his death. Ireland is well-known for literature with authors like Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats, James Joyce, Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett, but we should not forget Ireland’s two rock’n’roll poets: Phil Lynott and Van Morrison. 

Phil was born in August 1949 in the West Midlands of England and lived with his mother there till age seven. He grew up in Crumlin, Dublin with his grandparents, though he remained close to his mother Philomena throughout his life. He was half Irish, half black and, when he was a kid, Ireland was not a diverse place. He was the only kid of colour around. He stood out in every photograph. It never stopped him. He used his uniqueness and differences to his advantage even though he faced bigotry and racist comments. The first day of school he got into a fight, but being a big boy he knew how to defend himself, and, after a few early fights, no one at school messed with him again. Apparently, he never experienced bigotry in the rock’n’roll community. Major pioneers such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Phil’s personal hero Jimi Hendrix, who were all consummate performers, no doubt smoothed the way.  

One thing you admire about Phil Lynott is his versatility. He could sing in so many styles from pop to metal. Everyone can find at least one Thin Lizzy song they love. He was amazed at the international success of his rock classic The Boys are Back in Town, recorded in 1976. That was the first song to feature in the international top 10 songs for the band and was followed by a string of hits. 

Thin Lizzy wasn’t meant to end when they recorded their last album in 1983, the heavy metal Thunder and Lightning. After their last show in Nuremberg Germany in September that year, there was no goodbye party, no fanfare. They intended to take a six-month-to-a-year break but Phil Lynott and Scott Gorham (one of the ‘twin lead guitarists’) were both struggling with drug addictions. Phil was also dealing with the breakdown of his marriage. He tried to make it as a solo artist and had some success, as Yellow Pearl was the Top of the Pops in the early 80s, and he assembled and fronted a band called Grand Slam in 1984. But he didn’t have another The Boys are Back in Town moment. He wanted to get Thin Lizzy back together, but his health wasn’t good enough. 

The film is two hours long and features interviews with U2`s Adam Clayton, former bandmates, performers such as Huey Lewis and Susie Quatro (and others not so well known internationally), Philip`s cousins Monica and Peter, former girlfriend Gale Claydon, his daughters Sarah and Cathleen and his wife Caroline. It is worth mentioning that Huey Lewis claims Thin Lizzy was ‘the best hard rock that I have ever seen in my life bar none’.

We learn that the band`s name arose from Phil`s love of comics and a character called Thin Lizzie, a female robot in a comic. 

Australian fans will love the footage of them jamming on the steps of the iconic Sydney Opera House in late October 1978 for a soundcheck before a crowd of many thousands, where they were to perform later that day to a crowd that was reputedly over 100,000. 

Aside from a few stylistic flourishes, the director Emer Reynolds sticks to the tried and tested language of the rock doc and elects to let the music do the talking, using 31 songs from Phil and Lizzy’s back catalogue.  

The documentary is an engrossing portrait of the Thin Lizzy hero, a shy, softly spoken, mixed-race working-class boy from humble beginnings making it all the way to the top of the world stage, who died tragically in hospital aged 36 in January 1986, three years after his glory days had flickered out. 

Peter is Chair of the Cultural Heritage Committee of the Celtic Club 

Danced to Death by Visions

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Film Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Death of a Ladies’ Man, Written and Directed by Matt Bissonette; Starring Gabriel Byrne; Cinematography by Jonathon Cliff. A co-production of Telefilm Canada and Screen Ireland. 2020.

Death of a Ladies’ Man is as anodyne a film about a dying man as one could wish for. It details much family dysfunction, intergenerational even, fuelled by either alcohol or heroin, and offers few real insights as to what caused the initial trauma – the abandonment of a young child by a mother, and the subsequent death of his father at a young age.

However, the film has some entertaining ways of telling its multi-generational stories, and they are all dramatic. Not only is there abandonment, but there are divorces (expected), revelations of gay identity, vengeful thugs (unexpected), sexual rivals, who seem to venture out of another kind of film, one in which Davy Crocket might be comfortable. What gives the film vitality is that it ventures into the non-naturalistic which exponentially becomes quite surreal. The reader knows the chief protagonist, Sam O’Shea, college professor and novelist manqué (played by Gabriel Byrne), is dying, but what that means is conveyed via an accompanying chorus of bizarre associates, presumably figures from his ‘booze-fuelled psychoses’ and some of them materialise slowly: a pair of white hands with black pointy nails progressively manifests as a scythed Death (another escapee from a different kind of Norwegian noir film). Other strange witnesses to his deteriorating state include a Buddhist monk, a Frankenstein monster with a high forehead and bolt in the neck, and an American-style cheerleader. Sometimes the visions are bizarre: for instance, there’s a shot of winged birds shooting fire at a Canadian city (Montreal or Quebec, I’m assuming), but I’m not sure what to make of it. There’s another scene where Sam dies prematurely and is imaged as a statuesque figure on whom snow is falling. Are we meant to think of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’? I wasn’t sure. But it was was gorgeous cinematography (Jonathan Cliff).

What humanises this film is the appearance in it of a benign ghost of the father Sam lost as a teenager, and they engage in increasingly emotional exchanges, which cast no light whatever on the original failure of the family relations: why the mother left. It was unrealised ambition it seems, not unlike the son’s own, as vague as that. However unsatisfying as a plot point, one does appreciate the main character’s narrative arc as involving a deeper appreciation of his father’s care for him in the years after his mother’s leaving. And there are some knock-on effects which are rather more conventional than expected (let me avoid spoilers).

Gabriel Byrne’s Sam, College Professor, is a little eccentric (as endearing teachers of groovy literary texts are allowed to be), but we’re not led to sympathise with him as a philanderer, and indeed one wonders if his latest commitment, a French Canadian who turns up in Galway, is not delusional. I found myself feeling something for the young daughter (Karelle Tremblay) who is lost in a world of violent student drama/dance and hooked on heroin by her crazed and paranoid boyfriend. She, of all the family, understands the ‘horror of marriage’, and acts on her connection to her father and her anguish at his brain-tumour- and alcohol-damaged state, is palpable.

This is a film that looks for its audience mainly to the diasporic Irish in Canada and the US. There is a sequence set in Galway which again seems to have strayed out of a different film (the wild west, or wild-west noir?). It’s violent, but at arm’s length from reality, as is Sam’s dying from a brain tumour. There’s no haste in his demise, and much time for dancing with visions and for a strange funeral procession without a coffin in a church (he seemed staunchly a-religious, so this too surprised), and much use of drone footage. Sam has time to realise every literature professor’s dream (isn’t it?) of writing a novel. There are gentle jokes (the ghostly father has a ‘heavenly’ flight to the west of Ireland) and much soul-balm in the form of the liberal use of Leonard Cohen’s songs, with which at one point Byrne sings along in a gravelly, breathy voice.

This is a delightful feel-good movie that is light on grittiness and heavy on sentiment. Its evocation of Ireland is airbrushed and it celebrates Canada in quirky and humorous ways, even having a joke at the expense of its formerly controversial national anthem.

Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.

Families in Stress on the Border

Film review by Frank O’Shea

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Wildfire, Written and directed by Cathy Brady; Produced by Carlo Cresto-Dina, Charles Steel, David Collins; with Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone. 2020.

The opening scenes in Wildfire set a background for this gritty story of pain and difficulty coming to terms with the past. We have brief shots of Orange marches and IRA funerals, prisoners being released after the 1998 Agreement and news reports of Brexit problems. We are brought back to reality as we watch a stream of passengers leaving a ferry in Rosslare or Dun Laoire, only one of them being called back by customs to have her bags rummaged and herself strip-searched.

The young woman is Kelly and while the customs have no problem with her, she has difficulty getting a lift to the border before being picked up by a truck whose driver is not Irish. When she gets there, she is frightened by a loud noise that might be the gunfire she would have been familiar with from her childhood. Fortunately, her sister Lauren lives nearby and they are uneasily reunited. The remainder of the film takes place in this area, probably on the Tyrone side of the Blackwater river boundary with Monaghan.

The film deals with the difficulty that the two sisters have coming to terms with each other first and then with the unfriendly inhabitants of the town. Lauren works with a large packaging outfit, where her relationships with her co-workers are sometimes troubled. Meanwhile, Kelly is digging up the front lawn of Lauren and her husband, determined to plant some vegetables. At this stage, we realise that she is not quite right in her head and we gradually learn that her problems are concerned with the death of her mother.

There is also a brief flashback to the death of her father in a terrorist explosion. One of those charged has by now been released under the 1998 Agreement, but Kelly is not impressed. ‘You might be a free man, but you’re still a murderer,’ she bravely tells him. By now, she is getting more disturbed and has drawn Lauren into the kind of intimate sisterly friendship they would have enjoyed in their upbringing. There is one memorable scene where the two dance, almost intimately, to loud music in the snooker room of a local bar.

The actors playing Kelly (Nika McQuigan) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) actually look like sisters and it is only after Kelly begins to wear a red coat belonging to her dead mother that the viewer is clear about who is who. The two women carry the film with powerful performances, Rika deeply disturbed but managing to seem normal, her sister calmer and down-to-earth. Sadly Rika, daughter of the boxer Barry McGuigan, died while the film was in post-production.

It is not entirely clear how the situation between the two girls is resolved. They drive through the night to a place near a cliff and wait to be collected by the police – Gardai, not PSNI. The film is written and directed by Cathy Brady who was given an award by the BFI worth £50,000 for her work.

The accents are not strongly Ulster which makes it easier to follow the plot. There is not much emphasis on scenery, but such long shots as are used show a beautiful part of the country. Without having put a clock to it, there seemed that an unusual amount of the action taking was set at night time. A very modern film with a particularly strong female cast and with a story that may appeal strongly to women.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.