Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away review – The word ‘heroin’ is never mentioned

Stirring documentary will retain a permanent place on Thin Lizzy fans’ playlists

Phil Lynott. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Film Title: Songs for While I'm Away

Director: Emer Reynolds

Starring: Phil Lynott, Adam Clayton, Niall Stokes, John Kelly

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 112 min

Tue, Dec 22, 2020, 05:00

   

Even those of us who lived through Phil Lynott’s high period have trouble believing such a man ever existed. Internationally acknowledged Irish rock stars were, in the years before U2 and the Boomtown Rats, as rare as internationally acknowledged Irish Starfleet commanders.

In that depressingly monocultural era, his mixed-race background only added to the implausibility. And the records he made with Thin Lizzy still sound excellent. Johnny the Fox and Jailbreak merged American street life with Irish mythology in remarkable fashion.

“Down from the glen came the marching men with their shields and their swords,” he sang before moving on to the hustlers and dealers.

Live and Dangerous is a contender for the best live album ever – and, no, it doesn’t matter that some of it emerged from the studio. They should erect a statue to the man off Grafton Street. They should make a documentary about him.

Emer Reynolds’s follow-up to The Farthest – her breathtaking film on the Voyager space probe – will retain a permanent place on fans’ playlists.

The arc is all here. Phil’s birth to the charismatic Philomena Lynott. Thin Lizzy’s beginnings during a 1960s that never quite happened in Dublin. Their unexpected smash hit with Whiskey in the Jar. Slump and revival. Family and friends still seem shaken by his death in 1986.

The story is, alas, familiar from too-many prematurely truncated rock lives, but Songs for While I’m Away keeps the spirits high with footage of a smart guy with a quip for every circumstance. (Though the notorious “Is there any of the girls that would like a little more Irish in them?” now feels, putting it at its kindest, a little too Spinal Tap for mixed company.)

The encomiums from contemporaries can’t fully capture the singularity of the music. No other hard rock act was so tied to duelling melodies. They have no obvious successors.

For all that, Songs for While I’m Away does miss opportunities and does tread along too many well-worn pathways.

As a chap in his 50s who owns a garment made from cattle, I am allowed to point out that quite enough older men in leather jackets are asked for their opinion. Yet too much time is spent finding different ways of saying “Phil was great” and too little opportunity is provided to analyse the dynamics of the music. The LP covers flit by with sparse comment.

The framing visuals move from the thumpingly obvious to the weirdly clumsy. As events deteriorate in Phil’s life, stills of the great man appear over an ominously inky mass of water. Get it?

Most bizarre of all is the coyness about the substance abuse that did for him. Unless I missed it, there is no specific mention of the word “heroin”. Anyone unfamiliar with the story would be left a little baffled by his ultimate demise. He is on “drugs”. Then he is dead. (The failure to mention his remarkable status as Leslie Crowther’s son-in-law – still a trivia staple – is less important in an era when that TV star’s celebrity has so waned.) 

Those complaints lodged, we should celebrate the diligent compilation of a touching tribute to a near-legendary figure. The shots of Dublin in the 1960s stress what a different, and in many ways less pleasant, city it once was. The nostalgia is flavoured with bracing jolts of grim reality.

The surviving family get a chance to contribute. And John Kelly gets to affectionately rail against a lyrical infelicity that has long troubled Lizzy fans. “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak… somewhere in this town.” Somewhere in this town? At the jail presumably. 

Lynott would surely have laughed along. 

Released on December 26th