Wilko Johnson Film Explores Life and Death

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The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

Directed by Julien Temple

This film brilliantly reconfigures the documentary form into a rumination cum celebration of the double helix of life and mortality that pays evocative homage to cinema, literature, poetry, Shakespeare and rock ‘n’ roll as exemplified by the six-string sparks and feisty songs of its subject, English pub rock guitarist and songwriter Wilko Johnson. His fatal cancer diagnosis (that he later survives) inspires a film that is at the same time both deadly serious and deliciously ecstatic.

Johnson is likely best-known in America not for his music with the band Dr. Feelgood – who achieved even-less-than-cult-status in the U.S. though well known in his native England – but for his role as Ilyn Payne, the mute executioner, in four episodes of Game of Thrones. And in The Ecstasy… (which premiered in America in at the South By Southwest Film Festival in 2015) he brings a captivating presence to the screen. Given a year to live, his acceptance of his fate and how it alters his perception of both day-to-day life and the nature of existence offers a sagacious viewpoint we all can learn much from. “I felt this elation,” says Johnson. “I was almost ecstatic.”

An early scene that shows Johnson on the banks of the Thames estuary playing chess with the Grim Reaper, an allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic classic The Seventh Seal, signals that Temple – whose work includes the wonderful Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten and the Sex Pistols rockumentaries The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury – is up to something well beyond your usual music doc here. Though Johnson’s far-beyond the East End Cockney accent might at first blush suggest he’s something of a yob, we discover that he’s an erudite scholar and amateur astronomer in addition to being a brilliantly distinctive rock guitarist. Hence the clips from films by Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel and others and quotes from poets John Donne, John Milton and William Blake suit both the film’s subject and the matter at hand.

A delicious visual feast that serves up much food for thought and includes performances by Johnson that leave you salivating for more – see Temple’s Dr. Feelgood doc Oil City Confidential and check out Johnson’s recent album with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home (read our review here) – this masterful work of cinema carries deep and lasting emotional impact (including how a revised diagnosis and unprecedented life-saving operation throws Johnson for a loop). And within it is a key to ecstasy for viewers ready to expand their minds to embrace how both life and mortality are gifts to embrace and revel within.

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Rob Patterson
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