Julien Temple has a reputation for musical oddities – he rose to fame with the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and his Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, was highly regarded – it was presumably during the making of the latter that he developed his relationship with their legendary axe wielder that led to his following Wilko’s pancreatic cancer story that is the basis of ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’.
The format is possibly unique in that the documentary only really features one individual, the eponymous character, with a few fleeting contributions from The Who’s Roger Daltrey. But don’t assume for one second that this means the 92 minutes lacks colour. For a start, Wilko Johnson, who appears on stage to be a bit of a clown and who talks with a wide boy London estuary accent, is actually incredibly well read and educated. At one point in his unlikely career he was a school teacher (English I assume). It’s this aspect of his personality that fires Temple’s imagination because, throughout, Temple riffs off Johnson’s fevered imagination and regular quotations from Shakespeare, Milton etc and sets these against outtakes from the likes of Tarkovsky movies. A central motif is taken from the Seventh Seal where Johnson plays Chess with the Grim Reaper played by…Johnson.
The premise is this. Temple was recruited to film the last eight months of Johnson’s life after he was diagnosed with terminal Pancreatic Cancer. Only, he doesn’t die – the documentary begins in early 2013 and Johnson is alive to this day.
But, in the belief that these are his last days on earth Johnson stalks the world in a sort of purgatory as he says his farewell to adoring fans, records a valedictory album with Roger Daltrey and philosophises on the meaning of death, completely free of self pity.
It’s a miraculous achievement and feels incredibly intimate as you are drawn into Johnson’s nadir. What makes it spectacular is Temple’s clever editing and the recurring death motifs (a shadowy behooded figure stalks the background constantly – perhaps the companion of the Bergmanesque Reaper).
What also makes the film remarkable is his solitude. Other than the brief Daltrey moments we see no reference to his family other than the revelation that his wife, and childhood sweetheart, passed away a decade ago. It makes him seem all the more vulnerable.
I strongly recommend that you see this fascinating insight into how a unique man prepares for death. Enlightening.