Phil Lynott – Songs for While I’m Away – Review
“I still have dreams about him. This working class lad who took on the world and gave it a damn good thrashing.” Scottish music legend Midge Ure.
In 1988, ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ was the season launch song for the Winfield Cup (Now NRL) rugby league competition, a hard rock classic that catapulted Thin Lizzy into my consciousness.
I had seen a picture of Thin Lizzy rocking in front of the Opera House and 100,000 screaming people but they were before my time and my era had it’s own heroes to follow.
Nothing could prepare me for the backstory of Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy’s legendary front man who transformed from a black, shy working class kid on the streets of Dublin to legendary hard rocker on the world stage.
After watching ‘Phil Lynott – Songs for While I’m Away’, it is clear that he was an other-worldly talent, birthed from a collision of cultures, a proud Irishman and race pioneer and his country’s first and greatest rock star.
A look at ‘Phil Lynott – Songs for While I’m Away’ through a cultural lens:
1960’s Ireland is a steeply conservative country, taking cultural guidance from the Catholic Church and largely impervious to outside influences.
Phil Lynott was parachuted into the Dublin working class town of Crumlin and brought up by his grandparents having been abandoned by his Guyanese father and Irish mother.
After a few false starts, Lynott forms Thin Lizzy in Dublin and the band moves to London to record their first record and take on the world.
Fun Fact: Thin Lizzy was named after a female robot character in the Scottish cartoon strip ‘The Dandy’.
Phil Lynott faced up to a series of challenges on the road to rock stardom. In the playground and on the streets, he experienced racism as an extremely rare person of colour in monocultural Ireland.
His uncle Peter recounts Lynott being called ‘Blackie’ and fighting off bullies together. After his move to London, Lynott faced a double whack as he confronted shop signs that proclaimed: “No Blacks, Dogs, Irish.”
Although some claim Phil was never affected by racism, the reality was different according to African American bass and blues legend Jerome Rimson: “Trust me there were people saying stuff that was hurting him to his core.”
Lynott wrote a song called ‘Black Boys on the Corner” that in which one lyric hinted at his feelings as an outsider: “I’m a little black boy and I just don’t know my place.”
Lynott is a naturally shy person and had to overcome this to become the glamorous and powerful front man for Thin Lizzy. Watching him grow in confidence supported by his band mates is a thing to behold.
Abandoned child syndrome:
Lynott suffers from lifelong parent abandonment issues which is crystallised in one haunting scene in which he wanders from bar to bar in a futile search for the Guyanese father he never met, who left before he was born.
The Lead character: Phil Lynott – musical genius
Lynott is one of the most compelling characters in the history of rock music and ‘Songs for While I’m Away’ traces the life of a remarkable talent through extensive use of his own words through audio.
It is a vivid and relatable portrait from his formative years developing a deep passion for drawing, comics (Denis the Menace) and mythology to becoming a captivating force of nature as an incredible performer that could connect with the audience.
Beyond his talent he comes across as fun, loving and sensitive to others with band member Midge Ure noting: “Philip demanded your opinion.”
He could also party with the best of them yet never let it compromise his professionalism, with Jerome Rimson noting: “The most amazing thing about Phil Lynott was that I never met anyone that could party so hard but never ever give an inch as far as quality and work.”
Rinson adds a tender note on his personal impact: “Phil Lynott would give you his entire soul just to get you to smile.”
American music veteran Huey Lewis is a startlingly good interviewee and he is in no doubt where Thin Lizzy sits in the rock and roll pantheon: “They rocked hard. Thin Lizzy in their prime are probably the best hard rock band I’ve ever seen, bar none.”
The archival music is plentiful, 31 songs in total, with exquisite diversity from love ballads, to soft rock to Hendrix style psychedelic. Many of the songs are included at a meaningful length allowing his brilliant and poetic lyrics to be fully showcased.
His songs are a diary of his life that mark his different life phases, demons and motivations including two songs written for his daughters, the insipid ‘cocktail’ album, breakup songs and the sad and moody songs of his post Thin Lizzy solo career.
Beyond rock stardom, Phil Lynott was an Irish cultural hero and according to guitarist Scott Gorham: “Phil was more than just Thin Lizzy, he was an Ambassador of Ireland. We’d be doing radio interviews and he’d be giving them a history lesson.”
Irish music had previously been restricted to ballroom dancing and showbands and he drove a rock revolution, filling the nation with pride when an Irish band headlined the English Thursday night institution: ‘Top of the Pops.’
One of the strongest scenes in the film involves Lynott repeatedly, rebuking interviewers who labels him English. His Irish identity is his key identity marker shown through his pride in his Crumlin community that nurtured him and gave him the emotional ballast of home. Six months before he died, Lynott sadly announced that he was ‘finished’ with Dublin, a particularly poignant moment of severance.
Director Emer Reynolds has assembled an excellent and diverse group of voices to provide a 360 degree view of Phil Lynott’s life.
Stars of the show are Lynott’s ex-wife Caroline and his two daughters who provide compelling insights of Lynott both as a loving father and the cold realities of being a travelling rock star partner.
In return, Lynott notes their softening impact: “Being a father has brought out emotions in me I didn’t think I had.”
The cool line up of musicians and rock legends to share anecdotes and contributions includes U2’s Adam Clayton, Huey Lewis, James Hetfield, Jerome Rimson, Suzi Quatro, Midge Ure, Darren Wharton, Bryan Downey and Thin Lizzy lead guitarist Scott Gorham who says that Lynott: “Loomed large in your life.”
Huey Lewis spoke of Lynott’s powerful magnetism: “the man was red hot, he was on fire, you just wanted to be near him.
Lynott’s wife Caroline referenced his comedic side: “Phil had a great sense of humour and he liked to tease you with a mixture of innuendo and misunderstanding.”
For Scottish music legend Midge Ure, it was all about the nuance: “Phil wrote music that touched hearts. He brought poetry into rock music.”
Journalist broadcaster and journalist John Kelly spoke of his impact on a personal level, and his personal transformation that took place from seeing him live as a teenager: “Everything moved in its axis when you discovered Philip. It was life changing in a good way. I’d gone in there in a brown cardigan and come out with a leather jacket. How could this guy be Irish, how could he be from Crumlin. There are new possibilities here lad. Things aren’t as dull as they seem.”
Metallica guitarist and songwriter James Hetfield paid supreme tribute: “Philip was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He was fearless in his songwriting.”
The cast of characters are more than bit players in Lynott’s life. They all nurtured him along his journey, all aware they were dealing with a special performer and songwriter and this network clearly enabled him to unleash his potential and destiny.
Phil Lynott’s story is a tale worth telling. It is the classic hero’s journey: a fish-out-of-water reluctant hero, heeding the call to adventure, the chosen one crossing the threshold, facing a road of trials, slaying the dragon and bringing the magic elixir back to the people – in this case showing the Irish they could be cool and rock hard.
He gave Ireland a formative moment, igniting a cultural emancipation and providing a replicable template for U2 and the Irish rock wave to follow.
It’s a deeply moving and engrossing story that is complex and layered and devolves into a Greek tragedy when Thin Lizzy disbands and Lynott spirals towards a drug fuelled premature death at 36, his abandonment complex finally bearing fruit: “The brotherhood had gone and that’s what Philip needed.”
U2’s Adam Clayton captures the inevitable sadness of the fall: “There’s always a transitional moment with fame where the spotlight moves a way from you, it happens to everyone, you get very vulnerable at that moment and you try and chase the fairy dust in one way or another. It’s a Faustian pact and the wise man knows it’s a short contract.”
The sense of sadness and melancholy of the Thin Lizzy Farewell tour is conveyed by Lynott: “Lizzy is like a girlfriend you we’re madly in love with at one stage but you can’t go back”
A Directorial triumph:
Director Emer Reynolds has received some criticism that Lynott’s late career heroin addiction is not covered in more detail. Her response was one of positivity: “I wanted to make a personal and poetic portrait of him. I really wanted the film told in Philip’s own words as much as we could.”
I agree with her stance – focussing on his genius and poetry and showmanship and craftsmanship and the emotional journey, rather than the period of his decline and addiction.
It’s an affectionate, compassionate and weighted portrait and that is what someone that was universally loved for his empathy and compassion deserves.
Reynolds also went to great lengths to build the narrative through his music: “We decided to try tell the story of Phil Lynott through his songs, to see if there was some way to track a vision of his life through the line of his songs; they exist as throughlines from his heart and his mind and his thinking.”
For Reynolds, the motivation to tell Lynott’s story comes from the deep personal and national pride he generated and his clear legacy: “Since Thin Lizzy, we’ve had so many amazing music acts make it big, so we don’t see it as such a big thing – but it was huge, and stunning. For someone like me, in my early teens, he was one of ours, he spoke like us, and he was making it.”
- Entertainment ie: 5 stars
- Irish Examiner: 4 stars
- Sunday Independent: 4 stars
Legacy and impact:
Despite his tragic and early demise, the film does great justice to the story and shows what a truly unique and mesmerising character Phil Lynott was within Ireland’s cultural history as a poet and the country’s greatest rock star.
Today he remains a favourite son and is revered in Dublin with his statue outside Bruxelles becoming a pilgrimage site and his afro-haired profile painted on electrical power boxes.
His legend will be further cemented by this touching film – a memorial of a shy withdrawn working class boy, who became a race pioneer and showed the Irish a new version of themselves.
Phil Lynott – Songs for While I’m Away is a compassionate, beautiful film that shows Phil Lynott, an effortlessly cool, bi-racial, proud Irishman in all his magnificent and complex glory.
Keeping it simple, U2’s bass player Adam Clayton has the final word on Lynott who he says: “was an incredibly cultured man, who was just trying to tell us who he was.”
Image source: Irish Film Festival Australia
Feature image: Thin Lizzy performing at the Sydney Opera House Huty19281 005
See it exclusively in Australia at the online Irish Film Festival.
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