Footballers’ biographies and autobiographies often make for rather tedious, grim reading, a slog through a mixture of self-adulation and clichéd references to triumphs over early difficulties, stale titbits about teammates, and ‘loving the game’. Prejudiced as I am, I therefore approached Jane Preston’s new feature length documentary on Paul Gascoigne, titled simply Gascoigne, with a weary trepidation. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There’s no doubt that Gascoigne makes for an unusually interesting subject. Described by one of the interviewees, Gary Lineker, as “one of the most loved people in our country” and by another, Wayne Rooney, as “the greatest England player”, Gazza’s mix of footballing brilliance and tragic-comic behaviour is surely unique. The film takes a retrospective look at Gascoigne from his early life in working class Gateshead through to his struggles with alcoholism and the paranoia and psychological collapse brought on, in part at least, by the consistent hacking of his phone by journalists at The Mirror. Some wonderful archival footage is interspersed with long segments of a contemporary interview with Gascoigne himself, as well as segments from Lineker, Rooney, and Jose Mourinho. All offer insightful comments, though Preston’s love of slow-motion close-ups to book-end these segments is affected and unnecessary.
What makes this documentary genuinely compelling, though, is Gascoigne himself, and how well Lineker especially understands him, unsurprising given how often they played together at Spurs and for England. Lineker observes the almost pathologically fragmentation of Paul Gascoigne: the idea that Gazza was in some respects a separate part of his psyche, the playful but brilliant fool that allowed Gascoigne to become the footballer. This divided self, of course, left Gascoigne vulnerable, and Lineker observes astutely and compassionately that “part of his genius, part of his magnificence is the fact that he is so vulnerable.” This is also, of course, why he is so compelling to us as observers. How can the bold, wilful, even arrogant man who at his best was the most sublime English player of his time, a gifted show-off capable of outrageous effrontery and skill, also be a wreck, beset by addiction to drink and drugs, at times bafflingly childlike in his demeanour?
The film provides us with answers, some of which were already known: the terrible death of his best friend’s younger brother Stephen, which left him wracked with facial tics and a stammer; the subsequent death of a cousin from an asthma attack after Gascoigne had fronted a campaign about inhalers; and the deep, unfounded suspicion against his own family as a direct result of the phone hacking he suffered.
The beauty of this film, though, and it is beautiful, is hearing this from Gascoigne himself. He is totally endearing in his childlike, unguarded responses; his facial expressions and reactions appear wholly genuine. There is pathos too: his frequent recourse to humour when discussing something sad, such as when Stephen’s parents die of cancer and he digresses into a story about how he once blew up their kettle. This is a man taking refuge from his demons, from his own personal tragedies, in trying to make others see the funny side, a motif throughout his whole life, it seems. The death of Stephen clearly never left him, and Preston’s sensitive use of close-ups of Gascoigne’s fidgeting hands and her brave acceptance of his silences bring real emotional depth to moments like this in the film.
I have written elsewhere about how Gascoigne’s greatest challenge was to be a player seemingly from a former time just as football transitioned into the gleaming new era of Sky and the post-Italia ’90 explosion of football into parts of English society that it had previously left untouched. Preston’s film shows us this with stark clarity, juxtaposing the boy who played football in the street aged 8 or 9 with a tennis ball, the sound of a cheering Gallowgate End ringing in his ears, with the man who found that “fame and the trappings of fame, on and off the field, are his life now”, as one TV documentary described ‘Gazza-mania’. The frenetic energy of his time in Italy contrasts movingly with the somewhat frail, always slightly slurring (not due to drunkenness, but the longer-term debilitating effects of alcohol abuse) Gascoigne who appears speaking in the interviews. This is the “one big fairytale that eventually came to an end”, as Gascoigne describes his career, and it’s very clear that once the refuge that football provided him had gone, Gascoigne was left exposed and without a place he could really call home.
Ultimately, it is Gascoigne’s honesty and vulnerability that make this film so wonderfully insightful and moving. One cannot watch it and not be deeply touched by the man himself, his desire to please, his pleasure at recalling his career, his total lack of guile when it comes to talking about his own sadness. Preston handles this with tact and, by letting Gascoigne speak for himself, extracts enormous emotional power from the material. And it is clear that Gascoigne, even as he struggles through some recollections, ultimately finds a joy in telling his story. As he himself says, “There’s no better feeling than trying to put a smile on someone’s face”, and he is forever proving he was and is capable of that.
Perhaps he should know too, though, that there is nothing more powerful than laying yourself bare, without self-pity or grandiosity, just sharing yourself honestly. That is what Paul Gascoigne does in this superb film, and I hope it brings him some of the peace of mind he so richly deserves.
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