“If it’s going to kill me,” says Wilko Johnson, influential British rock guitarist, and subject of Julien Temple‘s new documentary, “I don’t want it to bore me.” He’s speaking of his shock diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer in his mid-60s, after which he was given ten months to live, and enjoyed, in his own words, “the most extraordinary year of my life.” Onetime punk-scene filmmaker Temple (who also directed “Absolute Beginners” and “Earth Girls Are Easy” back in the ’80s) has filmed Johnson, onetime punk-scene spiritual godfather, before — in 2009’s “Oil City Confidential,” his documentary on Johnson’s most well-known band Dr. Feelgood. And perhaps that’s why Temple is content to refer to Johnson’s musical talent and legacy only in passing in ‘Ecstasy.’ This is a film about a man, not a legend, and indeed it is the man who emerges as bigger than movie as a result. In its rather standard approach (interviews with Johnson himself in a variety of locations, sometimes contrived into rather strained mini-performance pieces, intercut with on-the-nose footage from old films and elsewhere) Temple’s film is a lot more ordinary than the person whose portrait it paints, because Johnson’s complex but generous reaction to his death sentence is utterly remarkable.
‘Ecstasy’ is a good description, “euphoria” another–Johnson speaks movingly and with great sincerity, in his uncompromised Essex accent, of the sense of wonder and relief that immediately filled him. It is precisely the opposite of the reaction we all fear we might have to such a chilling final prognosis, and staying with Johnson as he recounts his experiences, as the sands in the hourglass run out, is a summary lesson in perspective and in taking note of the thrilling aliveness all around. In being denied a future, Johnson says, fate has given him the gift of the present, an eternal now that he can experience without reference to its consequences.
Part of the joy of the film, because it is often quite an uplifting experience, flows directly from the seeming contradictions of Johnson himself. An old-school rocker (the only real celebrity cameo we get is from The Who’s Roger Daltrey with whom Johnson finally gets round to fulfilling an often-postponed ambition to lay down a record) and a rugged, bootstraps-style survivor of psychedelia, Johnson is also extremely thoughtful and erudite, peppering his observations with snatches of Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Chaucer. In fact he claims that if he hadn’t got into rock’n’roll (something he amusingly suggests he did mainly for the money) he would have been an academic, studying English literature. Temple matches this literary bent with an eclectic selection of clips from their cinematic equivalents: we get Tarkovsky, Cocteau, oodles of Bergman–most notably, of course, “The Seventh Seal.” And as for The Bard, Temple chooses footage, oddly enough, from the 1964 television version of “Hamlet,” called “Hamlet in Elsinore” which stars Christopher Plummer, Donald Sutherland, Michael Caine and more.
The issue really is that as welcome as these snippets are, and as enjoyable to try to parse and recognize, certainly for the film-literate viewer, oftentimes their actual message runs slightly counter to the unique and far less tragic outlook that Johnson has on his mortality, given that it is now an accepted fact. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, or his “Alas poor Yorick” speech, or even the famous chess with Death scene from “The Seventh Seal” all present a far doomier vision of life’s final chapter than Johnson embodies. Perhaps they are there to work as counterpoint, but it’s not really necessary as the thrust of the film is Johnson’s counterintuitive take on the hegemonic “death is horror” idea they represent. It feels even further askew when the dreamy visuals of Cocteau and the Archers‘ “A Matter of Life and Death” enter the frame–as they explicitly summon a sense of the afterlife that Johnson, an avowed atheist even after his diagnosis, takes no comfort in.
The most interesting moments, and the ones that feel much less like filler, are those spent with Johnson seemingly in the moment — footage from a farewell trip to his beloved Japan and a gig he did there, directly connecting with his many fans on the grounds that this would inevitably be the last time he could play for them. It’s an immensely moving moment, and while Johnson professes not to feel sad coming off the stage, the audience is visibly emotional. And there’s a kind of furious empathy at work while we watch Johnson look at trees, faces, the sea pulling in and out at the shore of his childhood home of Canvey Island, and see briefly through his eyes, as though we too are looking for the last time. This is the real opportunity that “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” establishes in its content, but then squanders in form, is to be able to piggy back on Johnson’s experiences right up to an answer to the biggest questions of them all: what does it mean to be alive, and what does it mean to die?
However just when that story feels mined for all it’s worth, spun off into directions and tangents some more provocative than others, comes a third-act reversal of the most dramatic type. “Turns out the Cosmic Joke” says Johnson, “is actually very very funny.” Playing a final gig with a distended midriff where the huge 3kg tumor cannot be concealed, he is encouraged to seek another diagnosis by a fan in the audience with a medical background. Suddenly, into this calmly accepting world of absolute finality, hope floods back in, and it is not necessarily welcome. There is something truly extraordinary about hearing Johnson’s reaction to these new developments — how he almost sounds mournful for the certainty and joy he felt before, and how unsure he is about contending with the idea of a future when for so long he had none. And there, at this fascinating juncture, the movie ends. It’s a film that constantly brings us to the brink of revelation but pulls up some way short, be it through the rather indifferent shooting style, the sometimes unilluminating choice of clips and illustration (scythes and hourglasses and constantly flipping calendars). But mostly it’s due to the frustrating sense that though Johnson’s experience we get to graze our fingers against some profound secret, only to have it snatched away at the last moment. [B-]