The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson
The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson confronts our worst nightmares of impending death and turns them upside down. It tells the extraordinary, yet universal story of legendary musician Wilko Johnson who, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given a few months to live, accepted his fate with uplifting positivity and embarked on a farewell tour, capturing the imagination of the world as he went. But like every good story Wilko's has a damn fine twist in its tail. Two years later and confounding the odds, Wilko wakes up in a hospital bed, unexpectedly sentenced to live, having now to integrate those enlightened lessons learnt under sentence of death into the unexpected and ongoing future of his life.
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★★★★ review by Mark Cunliffe on Letterboxd
When everyone thought we were about to lose Wilko Johnson, I reviewed Julien Temple's film about Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential and had this to say.
Thank God we were all wrong!
Wilko looks back on the year he received his death sentence and declares it to have been marvellous. It was certainly miraculous, and in capturing it and the reprieve itself, Temple has given us a typically inventive and rightly marvellous movie.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be feelgood was very heaven!
★★★★ review by Aidan Fatkin on Letterboxd
Catch-Up Review #42
I would just like to start this review of The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson on a personal note. When I saw that the randomizer had landed on this for today (October 15th), I was ecstatic. I like Julien Temple an awful lot, and I like Wilko Johnson in his spree with the UK blues rock band, Dr. Feelgood a lot more. Of course, I knew about Johnson's pancreatic cancer diagnosis in early 2013, and I knew that The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson encapsulates that one year of death being imminent for him, what it means to be alive, and his incredible survival story. Those expecting a typical music documentary will be disappointed. But in all honesty, I couldn't have watched The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson on a better day.
You see, last year on October 15th, 2015, my uncle passed away after a 3 and a half year battle with cancer. I'm not going to overload this review with personal details, nor am I looking for sympathy, that's not my intent - all that needs to be known is this odd coincidence and that's that. But at the time, obviously, it was one of the hardest obstacles that I have overcome in life so far. To see a figure that I admire in the UK music industry talk about his experience with this horrifying disease, as well as express his feelings of being lost after the passing of his wife from the exact same disease, makes me relate to him so much more as a person. And having seen this film on the same day that my uncle died - a person who I was also and still am close to in memories - makes it an extra bit special for me.
And it is a film that put a genuine smile on my face right until the very end. For one, Johnson's dark and dry sense of humour, commanding energy as he frolics around on stage and his iconic glaring eyes is strangely infectious. Yes, Wilko Johnson is the last person you would want to bump into in a dark and dreary alley in terms of appearance. But with that said - he's a lovely bloke! He is one hell of a charismatic human being, and to see him bow out as the film goes on with a grin on his face and his trademark Telecaster in hand, on what was supposed to be his last ever tour is awe-inspiring. This is a film that belongs to Johnson, and he carries it from beginning to end with no sweat, no tears, no arguments and no mucking about.
Temple simply points the camera at Johnson and lets him take centre stage. But that doesn't mean to say that Temple doesn't chip in with what Johnson is expressing through large subjects of life and existence. Visually, to support what Johnson is saying, Temple snips in clips from famous films and peppers them in throughout. Films by big name directors such as David Lean, F. W. Murnau, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau and Andrei Tarkovsky get the Temple treatment. Of course, this visual flare can be annoying as hell for some, and it is a style to get used to. But after a while, it sinks in and makes itself feel very comfortable alongside Johnson's direct opinions on his life coming to a close.
But the best moments are when Johnson's own hobbies are brought to light. From astronomy to having jobs such as being an English teacher at a school, this is what makes a great character. And for this to balance out the darker subjects such as the inevitability of death, time running out and the oblivion and nothingness that awaits us all, is what makes this man's story so courageous. And that's a difficult thing to do once you smile at the very end. So yeah, I kinda love it!
★★★★ review by Matt Thomas on Letterboxd
An aurally and visually surreal and vivid thesis on the impact of receiving a terminal diagnosis. Wilco is obviously a thoroughly decent bloke who's gone through a tough illness with grace and wit. And, thankfully, survived. Temple brings his eccentric eye to the film and the combination of these two intelligent artists is fascinating.
★★★½ review by loureviews on Letterboxd
Dr Feelgood were one of the most vibrant of blues rock bands to come out of the British music scene of the 1970s. Fronted by singer Lee Brilleaux (1952-1994) their high energy performances were given rhythm by guitarist Wilko Johnson (born 1947, real name John Wilkinson, ho ho).
This film celebrates Johnson and his miraculous recovery from what he was told to be terminal pancreatic cancer. He has had a lot of invasive and serious surgery, but he has survived, and in this thoughtful film, which made me think of that about Arthur Kane of the New York Dolls in giving its subject the main voice, we experience life through his eyes and celebrate the sense of 'being'.
It's possible that Julien Temple has let his artistic sense of visuals get the better of him, and there are a tad too many ethereal voices early on in the soundtrack (which also features an eclectic mix from Hamlet in Elsinore to Cliff's Move It), but this is ultimately a joyous and sideways look at life from the perspective of someone being told their time on this earth is numbered to a matter of months.
★★★★ review by Starsk on Letterboxd
Too busy living to worry about dying. Remarkable!
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