In January 2013 rhythm and blues guitarist Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and, electing not to go through chemotherapy, was given 10 months to live. At this point, for what all expected to be barely a few months, his career went into overdrive as he appeared on BBC Breakfast TV and in pretty much every UK newspaper while crisscrossing not only the British Isles but Japan as well, as he undertook a farewell tour.
At the same time filmmaker Julien Temple documented this while conducting seemingly lengthy interviews with Johnson to create this feature, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson.
In most hands this would likely have become an enjoyable career retrospective and partner to the concert film shot in 2013 at Koko in London carrying on where 2009 film Oil City Confidential left off, Temple though is not most hands. Having built a reputation documenting particularly British bands, musicians and institutions from The Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer to Glastonbury and London (in The Modern Babylon), Temple takes a subject and lays it alongside other British archetypes through film and other imagery to create documentaries that tell the story of their subject but also offer insight into what they may mean to culture as a whole.
In that regard, for The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson he takes 1946 David Niven vehicle, A Matter of Life and Death, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Throughout the film Temple calls back to these two pictures in different ways; much of the interview with Johnson is conducted on the beach at Canvey with the guitarist sat across a chess board from a robed figure, highlighting the (then) inevitable and unwinnable game with the reaper. In contrast, and I can only think this was added later, we get clips of Niven from the 1946 movie that sees him return from a perceived afterlife.
Along with this Temple takes clips of other films and imagery to really use his chosen medium to tell the story he wants to tell and make the points he wants to make in a way very few manage. Another who springs to mind with this talent is Mark Cousins, making for something absorbing both visually and aurally, in a way to match the more obvious story being told with perfect balance.
Of course, Wilko is the main focus of the film and the title gives a hint of what he brings. While his situation might suggest the film could be quite a depressing experience, it really isn’t. Certainly there is a sadness in clips from his farewell shows and in his anecdotes of saying goodbye to not just people and fans but even the planet Saturn from his modest, home observatory.
What cuts through this though is the revelatory nature of Johnson’s response to his diagnosis where he explains, in typically poetry filled detail, how he suddenly realised how to live in the moment and see the wonder in everything. This may sound somewhat trite but, coming from the very grounded persona of Wilko, it is clearly honest and true and Temple captures Johnson’s genuine nature expertly.
Along with this Temple still finds time to give something of a look back at Wilko’s life and career from his birth on Canvey Island through the childhood flood of the estuary island to his marriage, forming Dr. Feelgood and subsequent life as a seemingly non-stop touring musician and minor renaissance in the late 2000s with a mix of photos, archive footage and material shot for Oil City Confidential.
As it seems things are about to reach their inevitable climax there is, as in all the best stories, a twist. The film concludes with a pair of new interviews with Wilko, sat in his garden and on the beach again with his guitar, talking about his (still on going) astonishing recovery and his new outlook on life on, as he says, the birthday he wasn’t meant to be there for.
In this we hear Johnson playing guitar for the first time since his supposed retirement and see footage of his return to the stage with Norman Watt-Roy. Throughout there is something of a new perspective and humility from Johnson which brings the film full circle but with the earlier spectre replaced with the signature red and black Fender Telecaster.
Much like Temple’s other films The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is a kind of visual poem telling its story through the language of film as well as the words of its subject and in doing so goes deeper than a straight documentary ever could telling a story that is at once human, political, spiritual and, above all, honest in its outlook.