I genuinely didn’t know anything about Dr Feelgood. The film title ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’ was also a mystery to me. The online blurb about the film was similarly obscure, describing how director Julien Temple had produced an ‘overflowing visual cocktail’ serving up ‘Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Cocteau and Marcel Powell as fellow travellers on his death trip, with literary contributions from Shakespeare and Thomas Traherene’.
So I went along to the showing at our excellent local arts venue the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre in Dumfries, slightly out of a sense of duty. Our Glasgow End of Life Studies Group had been asked to ‘host’ the film and facilitate a discussion afterwards.
The lights dimmed, the attentive audience settled into the seventy or so seats and the film began. And that was when the evening turned on its head.
From the opening shot of the Lewis Chessmen incongruously silhouetted against the big skies and industrial waterscape of the Thames estuary, I was grabbed. For at least the first half of the film I had a beatific smile on my face.
Wilko Johnson was raised on Canvey Island. A marginal community to the east of London, a seaside attraction, a haunt of ‘fairground people’, scary rock and rollers from the 1950s – and yet a place dear to the heart of Wilko, and many others. This had been his home. Surviving the floods of 1953. Winning a place at the local grammar school. Going to University to read English literature, to learn Icelandic and to enter a literary world that never left him. Across 40 years of playing rock music, first in pubs, then in big venues and latterly, back in pubs.
Until 2013 which brought Wilko’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and the delivery of a prognosis of about 10 months to live.
The narrative is compelling. Wilko describes emerging from hospital with the news, his senses heightened and extended. This is a true ecstasy, in the religious sense. Life was no longer the boring bits between LSD trips – but a fizzing, visceral encounter in which the beauty of the world, the mundane and above all, fellow human beings, came to shine through. Wilko is facing death, calmed by works of literature, buoyed up by fans who come to see him play a last series of shows, thrilled by quickly recording an album with Roger Daltrey of the Who – ‘without even a record deal’.
Wilko is an astronomer and an atheist. From his roof top vantage point he says goodbye to his favourite constellations, expecting to be gone when they next appear in the sky. He becomes more forgiving – although not of his father, his recollection of him evinces a sharp and bitter reaction. Wilko sits by the Thames playing chess with the Grim Reaper with a sense of companionship, humour, even curiosity: ‘your move’ …
Having decided to eschew medical intervention from the point of his diagnosis, Wilko observes his own symptoms. He wonders if this cold or that cough are signs of pending problems. He listens out for warning signs. His tumour grows, becomes visible, gets in the way of his guitar.
One night a doctor is taking pictures at a gig. Puzzled by what he sees, he talks to Wilko. I won’t give it away here, but a new chapter in the story unfolds.
Afterwards, several audience members stayed behind and we chatted about the film, about Wilko, about death, dying and bereavement. We were all taken with this artistic work and with this man. It amazed me once again how easily people will open up and talk publicly about death, given an opportunity.
Go to see The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson for yourself. It was partly funded by The Wellcome Trust, whose support our project also enjoys. The music is fabulous, the cinematography and use of archive is extraordinary. And above all, the man and the musician are compelling: totally alive and mindful in the face of death.