The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

Julien Temple's new doc charts Wilko's death-defying recovery from cancer

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Julien Temple’s new film about Wilko Johnson takes its title from an unexpected state of euphoria the guitarist first experienced walking home after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As he explains, Johnson felt “vividly alive… everything was tingling… present, future, past, it was all concentrated down into that moment.”

Since being given 10 months to live in January 2013, Johnson admits he has never felt so good. Indeed, Temple’s follow-up to Oil City Confidential finds Johnson reflecting on his life and current circumstances with gleeful aplomb. Indeed, for much of the film, Johnson quite literally looks death in the face: in a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, Temple shoots Johnson on the jetty at his native Canvey Island, recounting his extraordinary story over a game of chess with a hooded opponent. Footage from A Matter Of Life And Death, Hamlet At Elsinore, Nosferatu and Orphée offer complimentary views on death, meanwhile readings from Traherne, Marlowe, Blake and Milton underscore Johnson’s former career as an English teacher. “It takes eight and a half hours with a break for lunch to read Paradise Lost,” he mentions in passing.


While some of the film inevitably overlaps with Oil City Confidential – in particular, the histories of Canvey and Johnson’s old band, Dr Feelgood – the focus is on Johnson and his own wide-ranging interests, including astronomy and Viking lore. Naturally, it is inspiring stuff. Given his deadline, Johnson embarks on a farewell tour, beginning in Japan – “a great piece of showbusiness,” he observes approvingly. “Everybody’s crying and that. It’s fantastic!” A final encore of “Johnny B Goode” assumes talismanic properties. An album with Roger Daltrey is hastily convened and becomes a success: Johnson finds himself on the chat show circuit. It seems, despite the circumstances, tremendous fun.

But although there is a happy ending – dear reader, he lives! – at the same time Johnson’s survival presents another set of problems. The life-saving surgery leaves him a diabetic; the mental impact of surviving is equally stressful, as he wrestles with loneliness and melancholia. Johnson’s conclusion – “I wasn’t supposed to be here at all, so it’s all a bonus” – at least provides an uplifting coda to Temple’s film.

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