It's 1974 London. We're in a pub. Sawdust on the floor. The distinct scent of putrefaction in the air. Wet, uncured afghan coats, dandruff, halitosis, mangy beards. Rotting hope. The fag end of the hippie era. But a gale-force sonic wind is about to blow through the place, rattling its cut-glass windows, sending the dandruff flying in the ultraviolet light and rinsing things clean. The band looks like Reservoir Dogs. Rolling out of moving cars in tight-cut suits, skinny black ties, and sawed-off haircuts. They gotta be here to hold up the pub and jack the takings rather than play the gig. Music’s been sped up, pumped up, and sandpapered back to its R&B roots. The singer stands riveted to the center of the stage, holed up in this room with a cop siege outside. In a filthy white suit, smeared with chicken grease and engine oil, he barks out words like psychotic orders to the band and strung-out zombie crowd. Zigzagging around him like a deranged, black-suited amphetamine moth fluttering around a fatal flame, the guitarist fires off random staccato bursts of machine-gun guitar at the startled victims in the audience. Behind them the big dark drummer looks like he’s beating a confession out of his kit and a small, fat bass player in a powder blue suit stomps manically backwards and forwards like he’s pacing his cell, walking off an overdose.
This band is Dr. Feelgood. The guitarist with the saucer-shaped psychotic stare is Wilko Johnson. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. John the Baptist to Johnny Rotten’s Antichrist. The crucial precursors of punk, who lit the touch paper in both London and New York before being swept away by the deluge that followed. It was good to be there, and maybe a film I made called Oil City Confidential can transport you back to ’70s Canvey Island and that sawdust-covered floor. I strongly disagree with anyone who believes you need to know all of this to enjoy a new film of mine called The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, featuring the guitarist from that unjustly unsung band. In our new film he is simply a man, sitting like Humpty Dumpty on the sea wall, confronting, as we all will, the universal reality of his own death. A few months before the film begins, he has received the death sentence of terminal pancreatic cancer and has been given around 10 months to live. Instead of responding with fear and trepidation to this news, Wilko managed to embrace it as a positive and even liberating experience, and somehow made sense of his life. Prone to depressive moods in the past, he now experienced an immediate and extended euphoria, which lasted over a period of many months. Freed from tedious unanswered emails, unpaid taxes, and unsettled scores, Wilko flourished in the present, inhabiting his own personal ecstasy in the manner of the Medieval saints, reveling in the world made new around him. Adamant that the illness would not dictate the quality of his life during the few months left to him, Wilko set out on a goodbye tour for his fans around the world. Two years later, he was still playing and confounding the odds against him. Wilko’s dignified and inspirational response to terminal cancer went on to capture the imagination of the world, giving many sufferers and their families—who knew nothing of his music—renewed courage to face their own personal struggles against incurable illness. The film tells the universal story of a man confronting his own mortality; how being told he was going to die made him feel so alive, allowing him to live as the clock ticked within each coruscating moment. But like every good story, Wilko’s has twist in its tail. Miraculously, the death sentence was unexpectedly lifted. A rock photographer with a medical background, unable to believe Wilko could be dying of cancer whilst retaining his astonishing dynamism on stage, begged Wilko to see his cancer specialist friend at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge. Tests followed. The specialist believed that Wilko could, despite a tumor the size of a football protruding from his abdomen, be saved. He underwent a massive and groundbreaking operation to remove his tumor, pancreas, spleen, and half his intestines. He wakes up sentenced to live. Slowly, Wilko comes to terms with this astonishing reversal of fortune. He returns to the stage, determined to integrate the enlightened lessons learnt whilst living in the shadow of death into the unexpected and ongoing future of his life. In sharing his journey, Wilko tells a story that connects to everyone. At some point in our lives, what he has gone through will make absolute sense and his courage and irrepressible sense of humor will serve as an inspiration to us all.
Julien Temple is an acclaimed director of documentary films, music videos, and features. Some of his greatest hits include The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a doc on The Sex Pistols; the David Bowie-starrer Absolute Beginners; the cult flick Earth Girls Are Easy; and Glastonbury.