The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (Julien Temple, 2015)
It’s a long time since Earthgirls are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988), a valley girl sf satire with roles for Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum and (a heavily-furred) Jim Carrey that is great fun in memory and yet sank at the time. This was Temple’s penance for sinking the British film industry with Absolute Beginners (1986). And he is is, doing television documentaries that get a cinema release.
Of course, that’s misleading. His heart’s clearly always been in documentary — The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1988) as one take on the Sex Pistols and The Filth and the Fury (2000) as another. His films Ray Davies: Imaginary Man (2010) and Rio 50 Degrees: Carry on CaRIOca! (2014) were part of Botney’s Imag!ne strand on the BBC, and The Ecstasy has a producer credit for Alan Yentob. (And, music aside, Requiem for Detroit? (2008) was a great piece of work.)
So, Wilko Johnson is a … rhythm and blues guitarist, in 1971 a founder member of Dr. Feelgood and associated with a range of musicians from or near Canvey Island, Essex. I will have heard his stuff, although not knowingly and I frankly cannot name a single track by the band. I’m either too old or too young and prog-rock of the Yes/Floyd ilk is what I listen to from that period.
I have no musical taste. But it’s my no musical taste. Get over it.
So any way, he was still going and still playing and in January 2013 he was diagnosed with inoperable, late stage pancreatic cancer and opted not to go through chemotherapy. The diagnosis was the making of him — there’s that classic interview between Dennis Potter and Lord Bragg of South Bank where the former discusses the blossom outside his window and the world and senses come alive. Wilko is saturated in Romantic poetry (and Shakespeare and Icelandic sagas and … studied a degree in English Literature and taught for a year) and has clearly had a Blakean epiphany. At one point he mentions LSD trips — but this clearly felt more vivid.
Temple had already interviewed him for Oil City Confidential (2009), a documentary on Dr Feelgood, so it seemed natural to go back. There was a great interview between Wilko and John Wilson — for
Kaleidoscope Front Row? — and so he had proven he could talk feelingly about his own life, and not be maudlin or angry or depressing. Pretty well the only other voice here is Roger Daltrey, whom Wilko made an album with when he thought he was too ill to tour — oh, and a clip or two from Wilson and BBC news presenters.
It would make a great radio interview.
But this is a film — and I guess there aren’t enough bits of footage or archive photographs to eek out the talking head. The conceit of him playing chess against Death is appropriate — and Temple intercuts bits of Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)) to help us. His taste for Shakespeare mean he can quote Hamlet (and Temple can intercut footage of a film of the play — I *think* Richard Burton’s), although it’s less clear if he knows that famous soliloquy is about suicide not just death. Then there’s A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946), a classic film about an airman’s near-death experience, which obvious offers a chance for A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) for a rather more Kentish (and Canterbury Sound) take on neo-romantic landscape. Oh, and Nosferatu and La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)) and … Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). And something Italian with books and chickens.
Temple’s own footage, when he’s not content to film Wilko in a landscape is ploddinly literal — growing/decaying plants, sands in a timer, stars rotating around sky, time-lapsed.
EVERY THING ENDS.
Although, of course, spoilers.
A photographer and oncologist Charlie Chan saw Wilko and though, that doesn’t look like that kind of tumour. You need a second opinion.
So now we have a Wilko very much in recovery — but frankly more depressed than when he thought he was going to die.
Don’t go to this expecting to get a sense of what Dr Feelgood was — I guess you need the other film for that — but try and edit out the frankly sub-Jarman visuals in favour of one of those great English musical characters who is still very much alive.