One of the first documentaries I reviewed on this blog was Oil City Confidential, a wonderful film by Julien Temple about the 70s rock act Dr Feelgood that develops into a historical piece about Canvey Island on the Thames Estuary. In documenting the career of that band Temple, who has made several effervescent, hyperactive music docs over the years, found the perfect match for his style in the shape of the wired, wiry Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. During the 70s Johnson cut an unusual figure on stage, playing lead guitar in a black shirt and black suit with eyes bulging and all the right shapes thrown. In Oil City Confidential Temple’s present day interviews with Johnson revealed an equally-intense older man still in love with the place he grew up in, while also allowing the subject plenty of space in which he could wax lyrical about his favourite subjects, such as literature and astronomy. Honestly: try and find it. You won’t be disappointed.

In 2012, three years after that film was made and after a brief spell playing executioner Ilyn Payne in TV’s Game Of Thrones, Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and doctors told him he had less than a year to live. Temple decided to make a documentary about Johnson as he faced death, but The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson is as warm an affirmation of life as you could hope to see: Johnson experienced what you might describe as an epiphany following his diagnosis, and during the interviews here he elegantly explains how he accepted his illness and received a new-found appreciation for life, quoting Milton, Blake and many others besides as he goes. He heads off on tour one last time, playing in Japan and the UK, and fans are teary-eyed as they bellow along with his cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, knowing he will soon be dead. He watches Saturn through the giant telescope in his house, explaining that he knows he will never see one of his favourite sights again…but that’s OK. And he records an album with Roger Daltrey intended to serve as a parting musical gift, which is well received by fans and critics. However, as has been widely-reported, a doctor got in touch with Johnson after guessing that the type of pancreatic cancer he had was actually operable, though the procedure involved  to remove a large tumour was extremely risky. Johnson survived the operation, and the documentary ends with the incredulous guitarist trying to figure out how he has managed to beat ‘certain death’ when he was so accepting of his own fate. It’s a life-affirming, thoughtful piece, its subject musing soulfully on his own time on this planet while paying homage to Bergman by playing Death at chess on a clifftop overlooking the Thames. Temple’s docs-on-speed are collages, utilising clips from other work alongside his own, and there’s plenty to keep cinema buffs happy in this choppy, kinetic 90 minutes; rather aptly A Matter Of Life And Death features most heavily in this magnificent, broad study of an intriguing individual facing the end. Another great job by Temple’s regular editor Caroline Richards, too, as well as music supervisor Chantelle Woodnutt.

Directed by: Julien Temple.
Starring: Wilko Johnson.
Cinematography: Julien Temple.
Editing: Caroline Richards.
Wilko Johnson, Various.
Running Time:
92 minutes.