“If it’s gonna kill me, I don’t want it to bore me.” It’s an apparently novel way to approach a diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer, but is precisely the one adopted by Wilko Johnson. Most famous for being the wide-eyed berserker hopping around the stage for Dr. Feelgood in the 70s, his response to the Big C ‘verdict’ (as he refers to it) is now the subject of a new documentary by Julien Temple. Temple’s Oil City Confidential (2009) told the story of the punk-influencing band and their emergence from Canvey Island, but The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (2015) pays little heed to musical legacy. This is a moving portrait of a remarkable man, which is at its most effective when it just lets him speak.
And boy, can Wilko Johnson speak. His lived-in Essex drawl and intense gaze might seem more apt for the manic jerky energy of his on-stage persona, but off it he is an erudite and deeply contemplative man. Quotes from the likes of Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare pass his lips with no hint of pretension, merely a recollection of the best way he has at his disposal to express his thoughts. When he learned in 2012 that he only had ten months to live, the kinds of things running through his head transformed instantaneously. He poetically describes the walk down the high street from the doctor’s surgery – it was like the very paving stones were shimmering. The profundity of life seemed to reveal itself to Johnson at the precise moment that the death knell sounded. And yet, he did not let that weigh him down. There are darker melancholic days, he confides to Temple who sits across a chessboard from him on the Canvey Island beachfront.
But on the whole, his positivity is wondrous to behold – he seems to have been freed from the anxiety of mortality looming like a shadow, rather than consumed by it. Which in part highlights one of the slightly jarring aspects of Temple’s film. The chess game in being played against Temple clad in a long black robe – although a few inserts suggest that Johnson is playing himself – in an obvious reference to Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957). On it’s most basic level the allegory makes sense, but interrogated a little further – in the context of Johnson’s outlook and his wider beliefs – it doesn’t quite fit as well. This is the case throughout the film which overlays various snippets of archive footage, or film sequences, on top of Johnson’s soliloquy.
Sometimes, the chosen visuals perfectly capture, or even enhance, the beauty of his musing. On other occasions they are too on-the-nose or, in some instances, seem to run counter-intuitive to what is being said. Fortunately, Johnson himself is more than enough compensation. “Look at Blake,” he says at one point, “he was seeing trees full of angels in Peckham long before Dr. Timothy Leary.” The dry wit, the storied life, the literary elegance and the expressive embrace of existence are all evident in a single sentence. While The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson sometimes threatens to muffle words, the man’s voice rings through. It’s perhaps not the best treatment, but it’s a treat to spend an hour and half with such a man. And he’s not a bad guitar player, either.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson