Directed by Julian Temple
Screening with Q&A at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
‘Death is our natural state’. The tone of Julien Temple’s at times wonderfully poetic film of the eminently quotable Wilko Johnson, the man who stared death in the face only for death to back down, is well-established by the time we hear this line – but it is the crux of the story. Just last year former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 10 months to live. The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is a film that gives Wilko the opportunity to meander through his philosophies on life and death, to take us, the audience, on an uncommon journey through the liberation of the impending full stop (and Wilko, an atheist, is thankfully certain of the oblivion – ideas of an afterlife are intelligently scoffed at). He talks at length about the ‘ecstasy’ of realising what it means to be alive, and it becomes quite apparent that in the 10 months between diagnosis and death that Wilko may be the happiest he has ever been. Many questions hang heavy throughout: the most pertinent is the one surrounding the uncertainty of the grave. Wilko has his card ready in his hand, just waiting for the nod to clock out. For a brief moment he is able to experience his own life in its entirety – a rare thing indeed. He is able to contemplate the novel whole, each chapter closed. ‘You spend most of your life thinking about the future, but now I don’t have one,’ he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Temple’s film, in the end, is not so much a biography of Wilko. We learn some things about the man’s past, and they are peppered throughout in chronological order – the death of his father, how he met his beloved wife etc. But all of these life-facts swirl around the eye of the storm that is the contemplation of mortality. Julian Temple was making this film at the same time that his own mother was gravely ill – Ecstasy is one of those artistic moments when things come together at a pertinent time.
The film is a positive, if not ecstatic, take. Wilko’s deep-set love of romantic poetry, and the literature of medieval England and Scandinavia, gives the narrative a perhaps unexpected depth, but it also makes for ponderousness. Wilko muses whilst playing chess with death on the harbour wall of his native Canvey Island, and the figure of William Blake clomps through the deserted holiday town in tricorn hat and greatcoat. The imagery is smattered in arthouse ghostliness. Wilko, never less than compelling and compassionate, really is a Blakeian figure; Temple points out in the QnA following this screening that the connection is less of a stretch than one might think. Blake and Wilko are both cockneys, and it seems to be only time and space that has separated them otherwise. If Wilko’s role as visionary has been a well-kept secret, a punk in-joke, before now, then this film releases that considerably. (By the end, you quite want to see a Julian Temple film on William Blake). There is absolutely no sense of pretentiousness or over-reaching to have Wilko’s musings brought to life with Thomas Tallis, Bergman, Tarkovsky. If Temple is ever at fault – and it is not a perfect film – it is actually from an over-egging of the pudding. There are times when a lingering camera on Wilko’s amazing face might have served better than a cut to another intriguing conveyor-belt snippet. Do we really need Leadbelly singing over the image of a sleeping woman drifting into sepia space as Wilko tells of the death of his wife, Irene? Probably not. But on the whole, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is a rich as well as enriching experience. That Wilko makes it, that he ‘wins’, and in such shocking fashion, is a Hollywood ending that any director would have died for. But what a great writer would have done is make that triumphant saving from death’s door a punctuation mark to a semi-tragic dénouement. And here we have it. The ending is bitter sweet, and it is the ultimate triumph at the centre of the film. Wilko’s ecstasy is removed with his melon-sized tumour. Life, it seems, will return with all of its trivial miseries.