Unlike many music films, there are only two voices in The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson, the filmmaker Julien Temple’s latest music documentary: Johnson, the Dr. Feelgood guitarist and songwriter, and, toward the end, Roger Daltrey. The Who frontman made the album Going Back Home with Johnson in 2013, when it appeared Johnson would die from a cancerous tumor attached to his pancreas.
Temple became friends with Johnson during the shooting of his documentary Oil City Confidential, a look into the pub-rockers Dr. Feelgood, and said he was heartbroken when he heard the news about Johnson’s cancer. Johnson chose to perform as much as he could in those last years, essentially throwing a farewell tour that he would close nightly with Chuck Berry‘s “Bye Bye Johnny.”
“Going to those gigs,” Temple told Billboard of the time before he approached Johnson about a documentary, “the crowd would be crying and cheering and I was beginning to feel there was something really interesting going on between him and his audience.”
“In the end, I said, ‘Do you want to talk about what you’re going through?'” continued Temple, whose music films have covered the Sex Pistols (The Filth and the Fury) and Joe Strummer of the Clash (The Future is Unwritten). “He seemed to like unburdening, saying how he felt. It was therapeutic, in a way. You hear about people living in the moment, but when you see someone doing it, it was really significant to me. He was liberated by the idea that he didn’t have to remember anything, which was startling to me. He did achieve this Buddha-like space, a warm engaging aura to be around.”
Eventually, after years of rejecting doctors, Johnson went see a specialist who was able to remove the massive tumor and prolong his life. Temple says Johnson’s recovery is to the point that he is ready to tour again.
The Ecstasy does not get very deep into Johnson’s musical history; that story was covered extensively in Oil City Confidential. With quotes from Chaucer, William Blake, John Milton and Shakespeare, The Ecstasy stands out as a documentary about a learned man, a poetry and theater connoisseur and an astronomy buff who happens to play guitar, rather than seeming like a rock star who is well-read.
“I would like to think you don’t need to know he’s a musician to enjoy the film in terms of him confronting his mortality,” says Temple. “In those terms, it’s a very universal story. In England, during the 18 months he was ill, he became a beloved figure, even among people who had never heard of his music or his band. He transcended whatever fame he had before.”
Watch an exclusive clip from The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson: