'The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson': SXSW Review
The former Dr. Feelgood guitarist is fine with his own grim diagnosis.
The cheerful final testament of a rocker who's been told he has only a few months left to live, Julian Temple's The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson overflows with variations on "stop and smell the roses" wisdom that come across more convincingly than usual. Crammed with images that sometimes bolster Johnson's perspectives and sometimes remind us of the picture's repetitiveness, Ecstasy has enough sensory texture to nudge us toward the unexpected euphoria Johnson felt after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Stateside commercial prospects are hobbled by the relative obscurity here of Dr. Feelgood, the U.K. pub-rock band Johnson played for in the '70s (Johnson's 2014 collaboration with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home, raised his profile here somewhat), but fest auds and Brit-rock geeks will receive it kindly.
American viewers may expect a doc that will introduce us to the artist before asking us to join his exploration of mortality, but this is a far more intimate film, saving its small bits of straight bio — and, importantly, footage of a young Wilko coolly stalking the stage while Feelgood singer Lee Brilleaux worked the crowd — for the second half. Instead we go straight out to the guitarist's childhood home of Canvey Island in Essex, where he recalls the day of his diagnosis. He claims he never felt fear or anger, but instead leapt immediately to a state of acute awareness of the physical world's wonders. He quickly decided not to waste time on second opinions or aggressive medical treatment; "if it's going to kill me," he reasoned, "I don't want it to bore me."
Much more erudite than your average rocker, Johnson studied literature at university and still revels in it, dropping lines from Milton and Chaucer into his conversation with the camera. (He also converses, a la The Seventh Seal, with Death over a chess game; the twist is that he plays the hooded reaper as well as himself.) He's a remarkably charismatic subject, and his philosophical equanimity about the prospect of dying within 10 months comes across so naturally one wonders if more cancer patients might be able to achieve it. His calmness (spoiler ahead) is only slightly less impressive once we realize that much of this testimony was recorded after, having outlived his prognosis by many months, Johnson learned that his massive tumor might not be as inoperable as his first doctor thought.
Temple piles on relevant film clips from Cocteau, Hamlet, Bunuel and others, and stages some of his interviews while projecting abstract images on Johnson's face or carefully staging his environment. Steve Organ's digital cinematography isn't always a match for the gorgeous vistas we see when Johnson ventures out to the Canvey Island seaside, but on the whole the visuals serve their purpose nicely. If more literal-minded viewers would happily trade a few variations on "I'm going to die; so are we all" for some prosaic details about Johnson's life, they can of course turn to Oil City Confidential, the 2009 doc Temple made about Dr. Feelgood's heyday.
Production companies: Essential Arts Entertainment, Nitrate Film
Director-Screenwriter: Julien Temple
Producers: Richard Conway, Andrew Curtis, Julien Temple
Executive producers: Grace Carley, Victoria Cadogan-Rawlinson, Richard Holmes, Alan Yentob
Director of photography: Steve Organ
Editor: Caroline Richards
Sales: Gary Phillips, Moviehouse Entertainment
No rating, 96 minutes