Prologue B.C. (before cancer)
Wilko Johnson, erstwhile guitarist of Dr Feelgood, came to further prominence in Julien Temple’s 2009 Oil City Confidential which told the story of the pub-rock, pre-punk pioneers with the stark, seaside mudscape of Canvey Island, Essex as the backdrop.
This time Johnson is the subject but for very different reasons. What began as a biopic suddenly became a ‘die-opic’ as Johnson was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 2013, given 10 months tops; now it was how to capture such an iconoclastic character facing a mortality check.
A portrait of the artist as a young man taking in his childhood and the roots of his life-long struggles with melancholy, the rare occasion he appears vulnerable is when talking about his Dad (“a violent man”) and Mum (“I don’t remember her ever kissing me”) and how this has perma-affected the way he is (or was). Much more bitter sweet is his demonstrable grieving when talking about his beloved wife Irene, who died in 2004.
Illness thrust him to the forefront, becoming a regular on television discussing his decision to shun Big Pharma with his upbeat demeanour manna for the televangelists: “I’m pleased to have it” he cheerfully announces. An indefinite future freed him up from the binds of any “future”.
A voracious reader from childhood, his stoic outlook and perception of “death” are arguably informed by his passion for such works as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Icelandic folklore and Shakespeare, his memory undimmed as he recites passage after passage, text upon text with relish.
A deeply philosophical person free of the dogma of religious cul-de-sacism, he is ever dispensing with proverbs: “What cannot be cured, must be endured” and aphorisms: “If it’s going to kill me I don’t want it to bore me”… “Sense of tumour”. Un-cowed he completed what was believed to be his ultimate album with Roger Daltrey, titled Going Back Home (“back to oblivion”). The Feelgood footage is a bold reminder of a lifetime ago, Wilko all kinetic and frenetic in regulation black (an overt representation of his inner mood) in contrast to Lee Brilleaux in his white suit, yin and yang, brothers in arms.
Temple’s filmmaking technique, his collages and extensive archive footage is akin to Adam Curtis in their forensic and meticulous implementation, literary referencing and poetic image precision. Every image or excerpt is perfectly (e.g. David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, Tarkovsky’s Stalker) juxtaposed with Wilko’s ruminations and philosophical musings wonderfully articulated by an evocation of the chess scene with Death from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, one of many visual alliterations of life/growth and death/wither. Ever incisive, meaningful and inspirational.
Eighteen months into the sentence fate intervened with fan Charlie Chan, a photography mad-doctor who was aghast at Wilko not only being alive, but running manically still round stage. Referred to another doctor with a 15% survival rate, he went under with a 3 kilogramme tumour removed. When told he is free of the disease he experiences less of a ‘pow’ moment, feeling less elation, the onset of death more wondrous and life-changing than ‘staying alive’.
If you’re not touched by this masterful piece of story-telling and it doesn’t make you ponder your own existence then you’re already dead. He does it right… the future is indeed unwritten … this is the only ‘feelgood’ film you need to see this year and any.
The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson is out now in selected cinemas.