SXSW FILM 2015
By Don Simpson | March 16, 2015
Director: Julien Temple
A stunning memoir of Wilko Johnson as he faces the final months of his suddenly abbreviated life, Julien Temple’s The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson gives the undeniably influential British musician the opportunity to document his intelligent philosophies life and death. Staying true to the punk ethos of living today as if there will be no tomorrow, Johnson opts to enjoy every single moment of his final months. Whether it be keenly observing the world around him or performing on stage, Johnson’s unwavering stoicism is nothing but commendable.
Having already captured the legend of Johnson’s musical history in Oil City Confidential, while also staying true to Johnson’s mantra of living in the present, Temple opts not to give much backstory on Johnson. The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson serves solely as a vehicle for Johnson to discuss his approach to dying. In this context, Johnson could be anyone; Johnson’s message — for which Temple’s documentary is the medium — has nothing to do with the rock and roll legend of his past. The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is not about a rockstar, it is about an everyman confronted by impending death. It serves as a lesson for us all to reevaluate the way that we approach life now, not when we realize that it is too late.
History only seeps into the frame by way of Temple’s carefully selected archival images; his memory banks conjure up a dreamy montage of scenes from the history of cinema that compliment Johnson’s thought processes. Drenched in cinematic images of the past, it makes sense that Temple adopts an iconic scene from The Seventh Seal, placing Johnson sitting across from Death with a chessboard separating them. Shot on the southern coast of England, this set-up allows Johnson to stare boldly into Death’s eyes while ruminating about the transcendent qualities of life. While Johnson’s words stand firmly on their own, Temple’s visual flourishes transform the content into something much more ethereal and contemplative, like a message oozing from a collective subconscious mind.