MUSIC FILM REVIEW: PHIL LYNOTT: SONGS FOR WHILE I’M AWAY

October 29, 2020

It’s funny, just a few weeks ago I was imagining that someone could, and should, make a documentary film about Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy. Somehow, I hadn’t spotted that Emer Reynolds had done just that and that the trailer for the film was first put out there in the summer of 2020. How did I ever miss that? Blame the strange times. And so here I am, on a rare night out and a very special occasion — just down the road in Esher at the Everyman Cinema. I’m watching the finished film in a half-full ‘sofa auditorium’ with my wife on a limited cinema release (part of Everyman’s Music Film Festival) in the heart of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a beautifully made film — making artful use of (very limited) scuzzy old film, those amazing Lynott photographs and intimate, thoughtful talking heads. Those close to Lynott or Lizzy told their personal stories and made often touching reflections. I drank it in, a notebook sitting on the tiny table next to my sofa untouched throughout, through fear of missing any tiny details.

The film works as a fine example of telling the story of a rock icon from their early childhood days, and their formative years, through to the journey of their stardom. The film took its time, dedicating much to those early years, unravelling the enigma behind one of the handful of black boys growing up in Ireland in the 50s, the bond between Lynott and Brian Downey that formed the heart of Lizzy in all its shapes and sizes to come.

Brett Andersen from Suede once said that all successful artists have followed a similar arc, comprising four stages: the struggle, the stratospheric rise, the crash, and then the renaissance. I liked the way the film took it’s time to explore Lynott’s struggle (and his determination), though I began to wonder how much time would be left to cover the glory years. Once we got to Eric Bell’s departure and the ‘classic twin guitar line up’, I could have sat on that sofa another three hours to enjoy the story of Lizzy in its prime. The film is such an effective collage of footage, imagery, the talking heads and of course the music — glued together with art-school visual effects — as to be a genuinely immersive experience. When we got there, the film raced through those successful years at breakneck pace, much as if it would have been living the life. It was a highly effective storytelling device, but over all too soon.

The talking heads were of high quality and I especially enjoyed first hand accounts of how Midge Ure — 80s electronic pioneer — got to fill in for half a USA tour in one of the world’s most renowned rock bands (and hey, holding his own, having learned the guitar parts on the flight to the USA — and that was on a concorde). And from Scott Gorham (who occupied the ‘left hand side of the stage’ as a counterpoint to the revolving door of virtuoso players to his right), how the famous Lizzy ‘twin guitar harmony’ signature style was created “by accident”. It came about when Brian Robertson played a solo back on top of a delayed recording and the effect sounded nice, didn’t it just. It was a style that was unique in rock and has never been emulated. Adam Clayton too, on the role of the bassist (“it’s about that huge thing dangling between your legs — you are definitely the man of the band”) and somehow making it sound philosophical. But his insights on the ‘faustian pact’ made between the protagonist and their fame was fascinating and poignant, given his analysis that 35 is the age at which there is “no going back to what you had before”. Lynott was dead by 36.

Part of the success of the film however, was that talking head accounts by Lynott’s uncle Pete and close friends and acquaintances were every bit as compelling as the famous names. The film’s treatment of Lynott and Lizzy’s songs is also wonderful. The film began with a rare Lynott cut I’d never heard before, but throughout there were thoughtful choices: Wild One, Renegade, Still In Love With You — alongside deeper cuts from his early years and solo projects (though no Yellow Pearl, nor his collaboration with Gary Moore on Parisian Walkways). And of course those popular numbers that so defined the band’s path: Whisky In The Jar, The Boys Are Back In Town, Don’t Believe a Word, Jailbreak and Lynott’s sweet ode to his first daughter Sarah. The focus on his marriage to Caroline Crowther, daughters Sarah and Cathleen and family life, was an unusual and welcome diversion from the standard fare of ‘life in the studio and on the road’ and would probably have been ignored by a male filmmaker. I enjoyed the glimpse into Phil Lynott, the family man.

During last week, I had read some of the press behind the release of the ‘Rock Legends’ box set (nicely dovetailed with the film’s release) and was surprised that some writers took the angle that Lynott and Lizzy’s work has gathered momentum since Lynott’s tragic and premature death in 1986. I disagree. I have never felt that the Lizzy catalogue has been given its due by music’s gatekeepers — journalists, radio presenters (credit Huey Morgan for occasional spins on 6 Music) or those who curate the streaming platforms. As such I am grateful for Emer Reynolds for making the film and I hope it sparks more celebration of Lynott’s work and the Lizzy catalogue.

I often think if only…if only Lynott had stayed alive. He chose to exit life when (and maybe because) his career was at a low ebb. It was two decades before the age of catalogue revival and of legacy tours, creative re-assessment and career longevity for any band of decent standing from rock & pop’s golden age. Had Lynott stuck with Lizzy, been called up for Live Aid by fellow Irishman Bob Geldof, etc. etc., Lizzy would now surely be enjoying a revival status similar to that of ELO, Fleetwood Mac, Def Leppard.

Phil, spraying bullets from the Fender precision, captured by Mick Clarke

Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away captures the man and the enigma: the dreamer, poet and creator of a world that wrapped together comic books, wild west iconography and Irish folk legend into a unique blend of melodic rock. He was the understudy to Noddy Holder of Slade, whom Lynott observed on the tour they supported and pinched a few nifty moves, stage tricks and props, including his famous mirror body plate for his Fender Precision Bass. Eric Bell’s anecdote of Lynott telling him “no don’t play that — too folky, no not that — too bluesy, and no not that — too rocky” was the perfect insight into the musician who knew what he wanted — something different and something more. “I don’t know what else to play then, that’s everything I have” replied Bell, dumbfounded. “Well then that’s where it starts”, replied Lynott. And so there too was the visionary and the taskmaster — always driving the best from those around him and collaborating with him.

He was always asking the audience and his posse, “Are you out there”? No wonder James Hatfield of Metallica likes to steal that line.

The film is being shown at the Doc’n Roll Festival and at Everyman Music Film Festival.

For The Song Sommelier’s take on Lynott and Lizzy try our vinyl playlist here.

Brought to you by the Song Sommelier.