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Phil Lynott documentary tells the story of the 'shy, sensitive man behind the showman image'

We talked to director Emer Reynolds about making the documentary, which she called ‘a dream come true’.

Source: AFISilverTheatre/YouTube

IN THE HISTORY of Irish music, Phil Lynott holds a hallowed place.

The lead singer of Thin Lizzy, he belted out songs that would become classics, from The Boys are Back in Town to Sarah. 

Now a new documentary has been made about Lynott, directed by Emer Reynolds, who directed the award-winning film The Farthest. Though delayed by Covid, the documentary is finally in Irish cinemas now. 

The documentary, Songs For While I’m Away, is rooted in Reynolds’ love for Lynott and Thin Lizzy’s music. ”I was approached by one of the film’s producers, Alan Maher around Christmas 2017, when I was just coming to the end of publicity for my last film The Farthest,” Reynolds told The Journal.

He approached me to see if I was interested in partnering with him to make it. I jumped at a chance, it was an absolute dream come true for me, being being a huge Thin Lizzy and Phil fan since I was a teen.

“Many times people have tried to make the story of Phil Lynott, both documentaries and dramas, and for various reasons those films haven’t happened,” added Reynolds. “The time was right and it was possible to make it. I feel so fortunate and privileged.”

90286120 A flower rests at the statue of Phil Lynott off Grafton Street, Dublin Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

The director was introduced to Lynott’s music by a boyfriend when she was 15. A big music fan herself, Reynolds was into acts like David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac. “He was a big Lizzy fan and we spent many, many hours with vinyl records listening to the albums, deconstructing the lyrics,” recalled Reynolds. 

A life story

Lynott was born in 1949, in West Bromwich, England, the son of Dubliner Philomena Lynott and British Guiana native Cecil Parris. As a young child, he moved back to Dublin. The documentary shows how, as a black child of a single mother, Lynott faced discrimination growing up – it was due to this that he moved in with this grandparents Frank and Sarah in Crumlin. 

As a teen, Lynott formed his first band the Black Eagles, and this was just his first step to musical stardom. It was in his next band Kama Sutra that he got to inhabit the role of frontman. The band signed a record deal and during his time with them Lynott learned to play the bass. 

He moved on to another band, Orphanage, but it was in 1969 that Thin Lizzy were formed by Lynott, Brian Downey, and Eric Bell. Reynolds’ film shows how Lynott developed as an artist in Thin Lizzy – how he developed his stage persona and charisma. 

When you’re telling the life story of someone as interesting as Lynott, it must be a tricky task to decide what has to stay on the cutting room floor. 

“We probably could have made three films in terms of narrative beats and twists and turns of his story,” acknowledged Reynolds. “I was trying to focus on telling the story of both the rock star and the man behind the rock star. To keep the personal and the public, the showman and the shy sensitive man behind the image, to keep those stories twisting, turning and weaving through each other.”

Lynott died in 1986, some years after leaving Thin Lizzy and trying his hand at a solo career. He suffered from ill-health related to his drug use. 

“We really [tried] to tell his story as much as we could first-hand. Sadly he died so young we were not able to do interviews with him, but we were trying to tell the story in his own words via his songs,” said Reynolds. “The songs are used as chapters in his life or windows into his soul. We were trying to allow Philip tell you the story of himself: the boy, the band songwriter, the poet, the glam rock star, the glorious rockstar he turned into.”

The team had access to an “extraordinary” archive of Lynott material, and were able to interview many of his close friends and family, some of whom had never spoken on camera before. It was particularly important for Reynolds to get his wife Caroline and daughters Sarah and Cathleen in the film. 

PHIL LYNOTT COIN  II2A8847 Sisters Sarah and Cathleen Lynott Source: Eamonn Farrell

She knew they could shed light on who the real Lynott was, and could “talk personally and intimately with tenderness of the man behind [the fame]“.

Overall, Reynolds wanted to make a film that showed “tenderness, compassion and love, with respect and dignity” towards Lynott. “Not tabloid, focused on drugs and a tragic ending.”

Indeed, Lynott’s drug use and death is “part of the story but treated in the film with the sadness it deserves, as opposed to a warts and all [depiction]“.

“It’s more of a loving tender tribute,” said Reynolds, though she acknowledged it was “tricky to navigate – I don’t want to gloss over it, don’t want to minimise it”. 

Reflecting on the loss of Lynott dying at just 36 years of age, Reynolds said:

Imagine what he would have achieved if he lived on. I don’t want to gloss over it, nor do I want to be salacious and sensationalist about it. I kept thinking about that phrase: there but for the grace of God go I. 

“I think if I had been a young man or young woman in the 1970s faced with that fame and drug use that was all over the rock world at the time, I think I would have gone down that same path. He wasn’t that fortunate. I feel nothing but tenderness towards him and sorrow towards that. I don’t feel in any way it’s a worthy subject to pore over. [I wanted to] deal with it in dignity and the respect he deserve.”

Reynolds realised that she had bought into the image Lynott projected on stage, so it was fascinating to learn that he “had to craft that rocker persona”.

“The hard work and effort he put into mastering it, that’s a little-known part of his story too. It looks like it’s effortless to him. He identified and articulated what he needed to do and learned to be an incredible performer.”

Background

What impact does Reynolds think Lynott’s background had on his music? “I think you can see echoes and shades of that abandonment and those questions about his identity and his beginnings all through his work,” she said. “It sneaked out in his lyrics all through the years.”

Being separated from his mother, the racism he experienced, “the separateness”, it all must have had an impact. “He definitely had a difficult start but I’m so impressed that he overcame it. He was so happy in Dublin with his grandparents.” 

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Reynolds believes that Lynott’s “fortitude” and inner courage helped him to overcome his beginnings and his losses. 

“He stayed living – you see someone who stayed living.” The film shows “we can overcome our beginnings… and make our dreams come true”, said Reynolds. 

Another part of Phil Lynott’s story that stuck with Reynolds was how he “fully embrace[d] his Irish identity”. He was into Irish mythology, had a strong Irish accent, and “returned here as often as he could”.

“Maybe embracing his Irishness and Irish identity really was something he applied himself to in order to belong,” said Reynolds. She believes that the feeling of “belonging” was “what he was after his whole life”.

Style-wise, Reynolds wanted to make the film a “very beautiful, poetic portrait”. “We were trying to find a whole visual language around that that would give the film great breadth and beauty.”

It is, said Reynolds, a “shy film with swagger” .

It was a joy for her to make a film about a musician with such a great legacy. “His musical influence is without a doubt huge,” she said.

He is a very inspirational character, to have such humble beginnings, raised in a working class housing estate. To have dreamed his way out of that beginning, all the way to thousands of screaming fans in Sydney Opera House… Some of his songs are world known, there are a lot that weren’t and a lot that are hidden.

“That’s his inspirational legacy, he made that happen in his own life, he did that for himself. I think that’s extraordinary, the fact the story has such a tragic ending is part of his wonderful legacy. We feel his humanity, he’s like us all, he has feet of clay. He’s a human being. He tried so hard to live, to outrun his sadnesses, maybe he didn’t but he achieved so much in his short life.”

Joyride

Next up for Reynolds is a black comedy road movie, Joyride, set in Kerry. It stars Olivia Colman and is based on a screenplay by Kerry writer Ailbhe Keogan.

“I’m so honoured and excited to have her on board,” said Reynolds of Colman. Despite all the Covid issues, when we spoke Reynolds said she was “very optimistic, very hopeful it will all work”. Indeed, it was confirmed this week that they have cast a young actor to play opposite Colman, Charlie Reid.

It’s been an incredible few years for Reynolds, who won multiple awards for The Farthest. But she’s not one for ego: 

“It’s very moving and very humbling – I’m so happy to just keeping doing the work and doing the best I can.”

Songs For While I’m Away, directed by Emer Reynolds, is playing in cinemas now.  

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