The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson review: a rhythm in his blues

Julian Temple’s documentary on the influential and dying Dr Feelgood guitarist is affectionate and eccentric in all the right ways

Film Title: The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

Director: Julien Temple

Starring: Wilko Johnson

Genre: Music

Running Time: 92 min

Fri, Jul 24, 2015, 12:44


How much is there to be said about Dr Feelgood? More than those unfamiliar with the Canvey Island r’n’b maestros might suspect. Six years after releasing Oil City Confidential, his essential study of the group, Julien Temple returns with a film that originally set out to offer a memorial to the imminently late Wilko Johnson.

In one sense, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is a welcome failure. At time of writing, the machine-gun guitarist is in remission from pancreatic cancer. This only adds layers of irony to an imaginatively touching picture soaked in all the right kinds of eccentricity.

Within the opening 10 minutes, we have heard some of Allegri’s Miserere, seen a bit of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, watched Wilko take on the role of Max Von Sydow in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and moved on to the opening of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.

Trailer: The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

That last film is of particular relevance. It famously begins with RAF pilot David Niven, alone on a stricken bomber, telling a radio operative that he doesn’t intend to be burnt alive. He’s going down in the most spectacular way possible.

Following his diagnosis, Wilko went through few of the accepted traumas or grieving processes. He did no deals with God. He felt little sense of despair. As Wilko contemplates a farewell tour, Temple’s affectionate film allows him to talk through his robust philosophy: think of now, not of what’s to come. One of the more moving moments finds the amateur astronomer contemplating a last glance at his beloved Saturn.

Temple, who first emerged as The Sex Pistols’ in-house director, has developed into an essential curator of the English experience. We get a bit of Cocteau here and a touch of Bergman there. But The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson still feels like something that has seeped into the modern world from damp spots around standing stones.

His mop-top now a shiny pate, Johnson himself is yeoman, sage and druid. I hope he takes that as a compliment.