The Irish Film Festival Australia is streaming online; a glorious chance to drink Guinness, cook Irish food and immerse ourselves in Irish culture and stories. Emer Reynolds’ warm-hearted hagiography of Thin Lizzy front man Phil Lynott is a welcome elevation of his music and the difficulties of being “the only black boy in Dublin in the 50s” rather than the tragic ignominy of his death.
Thin Lizzy wasn’t really my kind of band, deep as I was in the frills and flounces of 80s New Romantic bands when they were at their peak. I really knew nothing about them or Lynott, not even that he was Irish, so Songs for While I’m Away was an eye-opening journey into what it might have been like in Dublin in the 70s and what makes Thin Lizzy’s sound so distinctive.
There are glimpses of what might have caused Lynott’s later struggles with addiction in the difficulties of his childhood – an unplanned pregnancy for his young mother Philomena saw him raised by his grandparents in Dublin with only sporadic contact with her. His dark skin and curly hair made him a target for bullies and perhaps contributed to a social awkwardness that only left him when his hard rock stage persona emerged. Music was an obsession from an early age and he remains one of the better know lead singers to excel at bass guitar.
Reynolds gives us lots of talking heads; that all the musicians are men and the women ex-girlfriends, wives and daughters no doubt speaks volumes about the sexism of the hard rock music scene at the time. We hear a lot of Lynott and Thin Lizzy’s music, sometimes given context where songs reflect the personal experiences and vulnerabilities of Lynott’s life. It’s not really a deep dive, more a warm and relaxing swim through shallow, tropical waters with a clear, blue sky and a gentle breeze. There are some surprises – I didn’t know Ultravox’s Midge Ure was in Thin Lizzy for a while or than Lynott helped Huey Lewis establish a career – and a very light touch when talking about the drug addiction that contributed to Lynott’s death at age 36.
Lynott died when Thin Lizzy had disbanded and before he had the chance to reestablish himself outside of its shadow, either in another band or as a solo artist. It is a sad note, as you feel that he never knew what an impact he had, from the musicians he influenced to the many depictions of his distinctive look on the streets of Ireland.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.