Phil Lynott: Songs For While I'm Away shows on RTÉ tonight

Irish director Emer Reynolds has produced an impressive homage to her hero, Phil Lynott
Phil Lynott: Songs For While I'm Away shows on RTÉ tonight

Songs for While I’m Away: Phil Lynott and Brian Robertson and performing live onstage. Picture: Fin Costello/Redfern

Emer Reynolds can still vividly remember the emotion in the venue as she watched Thin Lizzy’s last-ever Irish gig. It was the spring of 1983 in Dublin’s RDS, and as the band played some of their most memorable songs, the tears started to fall. She wasn’t the only one.

“Everyone was in tears,” she tells me. “It didn't seem real that Thin Lizzy would be no more. They had said it was their last tour. I definitely thought maybe this won't be the end, maybe they'll take a break for a year or two. Philip was doing solo stuff at that stage. Maybe they all need to just refresh a little and then they'd be back. But then of course life took the sad turn that it did. And that actually was the end of the line.”

 Just three years later, one of the greatest forces in rock would lose his life. Lynott was only 36 when he died on January 4, 1986, from heart failure and pneumonia, after being in a coma for eight days. In the last few years of his life he had struggled with drug and alcohol issues.

Now Reynolds is bringing his music to other fans with her documentary Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away. 

The documentary features all the great rock tunes but also many of his lesser-known songs. It’s a powerful, universal reminder of how a working-class, mixed-race boy from 1950s Dublin became one of our greatest and sexiest stars. More than anything, it shows what a terrific songwriter he was, as Reynolds’ narrative of his life unfolds through the language of his songs. It works both as a film for the converted and an introduction to his sheer body of work to a new generation of fans.

The filmmaker, who last brought us award-winning Voyager space documentary The Farthest, was first introduced to the music of Thin Lizzy as a teenager.

“Myself and my sister were going out with these two boyfriends from a school called Joey's (St Joseph’s) in Fairview and they were huge Lizzy fans and introduced us to them. And it was the proper, Thin Lizzy stencil on your school bag and all over your journal in school, and listening to and deconstructing all the albums and analysing all the lyrics - real devotion.

“I was a fan who spanned all the changes and there were changes in personnel and there were changes in style. You could see him growing as a songwriter and then potentially diminishing as a songwriter as well. I don't like the last album at all.”

Phil Lynott  and Thin Lizzy at Cork City Hall in  1982. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive 
Phil Lynott  and Thin Lizzy at Cork City Hall in  1982. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive 

From early on, she wanted to bring his own voice into his story. “That was the key note in terms of how we would approach it, and obviously, tragically, not being able to interview him himself. Really having to be creative about how we might build it around his own words. I wanted to tell it in as first-hand a way as possible, rather than hearsay or anecdotes.

“We have the audio archives that you hear in the film, the material that does exist of him speaking about his life and work. That was hard enough to find. He seemed to be pretty keen in interviews to talk about the tours and the gigs and the craic. He didn't find it as easy to dig deeper, or reveal himself.

“The biggest line is to tell the story of his life through the songs. Taking them as his thoughts, how he's expressing himself and trying to chart the journey of his life and his interests and his inner world, through the songs without being too specific. I'm inviting the audience to make connections should they wish to. It's not a definitive.

“The third track was to talk to people who are very close to him, and a lot of them have never spoken about him before. I worked hard to find people close to him - his very early girlfriend Gail, his daughters and his wife, people who would speak about the man they knew, and I was honoured that they would trust me with that story.”

 Lynott’s uncle Peter, who regarded him as a brother as there was only 14 months between them, speaks of their childhood. Musical contributors include Lizzy’s highly entertaining co-lead guitarist Scott Gorham and Midge Ure, who was called up by Phil to join them on tour at late notice.

“That moment in the film, I think, is really funny. Philip knew him as a friend. They had a problem on tour where they needed a guitarist. He rang Midge and asked him to join the tour. Midge was trying to learn the songs with the tracklisting on the plane. This was the 80s and Midge talks about coming out with the big shoulder pads and eyeliner and his hair a bit quiffed. Anyone who knows Lizzy knows that's not really the visual language they were going for.” Reynolds will next turn her hand to drama, directing none less than Olivia Colman in the forthcoming comedy, Joyride, from a screenplay by Kerry writer Ailbhe Keogan.

“The story is so funny. And so moving, it's real proper dark comedy. Olivia Coleman was the only name on our list and we approached her. That was how lucky we were and we're hoping to shoot it in summer. We'll shoot it in Ireland, in Kerry and Clare hopefully, and a little in Dublin.” 

Thin Lizzy: My favourite songs 

Emer Reynolds, director of Songs for While I’m Away.
Emer Reynolds, director of Songs for While I’m Away.

While the big hits are all there, Reynolds also wanted to show the breadth of Lynott’s work, and included some personal favourites.

“There's a song in the film called Dublin which is given a starring role, as he leaves Dublin. It was on an EP after the first album. It ended up being re-released later, as part of an extended first album. That's one of my favourites because it has very beautiful lyrics, a very poetic turn of phrase. I love the sound. And I think if people only know the Boys are Back in Town or Don't Believe a Word, they will be surprised by a song like Dublin.

“My favourite Lizzy song is their second last song that is featured in the film. It's the big finale, when we re-celebrate him after we've gone through the moment in the film when he dies. It's a song called Running Back, it's on the Jailbreak album, and it's pure pop. It's a pop song as opposed to a rock song. It's got the most mind-blowing lyrics and really reveals Philip the songwriter. There's a line: 'When they say it's over, it's not over, there's still the pain’. It's a beautiful lyric. And it's hidden in this really melodic pop song. That sums him up, this extraordinary talent to pack some difficult and dark ideas in beautiful songs.” 

Reynolds also features the album Nightlife, a somewhat divisive album among music fans. “This is controversial because Lizzy fans don't tend to like this album, but I have a great love for Nightlife, their fourth album. Scott Gorham describes it in the film as their cocktail album. It was a little quieter, it has shades of Steely Dan and all these influences in there.”

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