The Plot: This rags-to-riches rockumentary charts the stratospheric rise of one Philip Lynott. Born in London but raised in Crumlin, he was proud of his Irish heritage and loved his town as much as he loved life. Being black and Irish growing up in working class 1950s Dublin wasn’t a bother to him. He was already on the path to success, using his talent for rock music as a way of tackling his shyness. Having set up the band Thin Lizzy, it was only a matter of time before his natural presence as the band’s frontman ensured a bright future. But at the heart of it all was a young man who loved his family, friends, his audience and the enduring appeal of a thrumming rock guitar…
The Verdict: ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long’. Blade Runner’s replicant inventor could very well have been talking about any number of hugely talented artists who left their mark on the world… and then left it too soon. Dying at the same age as Marilyn Monroe, Irish rock musician Phil Lynott undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the music scene which is still felt today. Just ask Huey Lewis, who credits Lynott for launching his career and being hands down the greatest rock musician. Ever. Lewis is just one of many familiar faces that appear in Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away, an emotionally-charged feature rockumentary that takes audiences on a personal journey through Lynott’s life, career, loves and regrets.
Why did it take so long to make a film about this most revered of Irishmen? A number of years ago, there was discussion around a dramatic biopic on the relationship between Lynott and his mother Philomena. Maybe just as well that it didn’t come to fruition. A rockumentary is a more natural fit, as we get to see Lynott strut his thing on stage, holding his electric guitar like a minigun shooting out chords of truth about his life and where his head was at. As one commentator notes, musicians write about their life. His lyrics tell you what you need to know as he rose and then fell from grace as the fire gradually started to die out. The film is named after one of Thin Lizzy’s songs – a nod towards legacy, something that Lynott became aware of when he engaged with an audience (let’s forget about the rock cover of Whiskey In The Jar, even if it brought him international fame).
Having taken us into space with the outstanding documentary The Farthest, director Emer Reynolds’ latest film is an earthbound affair. Moving from deep space probes to an intimate story of a rock musician sounds like quite a change of direction. Not so, as Reynolds has tapped into the same theme of exploration and a personal journey through a particular moment in time. Focusing on the key periods of the 1970s and 1980s, it’s doubly nostalgic during a pandemic when live music gigs are threatened with extinction. And who better than Lynott to remind us why rock music is so important to the soul of Irish society? Reynolds structures her film with the usual talking heads, but they are quality talking heads including Lynott’s lovers, children, band members, commentators, admirers and relatives. Lynott’s uncle bluntly recalling how he and Phil tackled racist bullies at school is a particular stand-out.
What impresses the most in this fine documentary is Lynott himself. With a wealth of archive footage, both on and off stage, it’s his voice that is most prevalent. That’s not something that is often attributed to documentaries, when the subject can get lost in the footage. Skillfully edited by Tony Craunston, there’s a treasure trove of moments that capture the high energy of his performances and his straight talking with interviewers (quickly correcting one who thinks he’s British, for example). Although there’s a sense of reverence about her subject, Reynolds doesn’t shy away from the darker stuff like the drug abuse either – hinted at in Lynott’s own lyrics. The film is a rounded, honest portrait of the rocker as a young man. It looks and sounds great on the big screen too – save this one for the cinema, not the small screen. Rock out with this perceptive and toe-tapping tribute. The boy is back in town.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Irish Release Date : June 11th 2021
Phil Lynott: Songs For While I'm Away (Ireland / 12A / 112 mins)