“Canvey is the new Lourdes,” reads a memorable piece of graffiti on Canvey Island’s sea wall. Just seen The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson at the Barbican and it’s a great film and something of an Essex-fest too. Director Julien Temple has Wilko playing chess with the Grim Reaper on Canvey’s sea defences, as you do. Or Wilko's sitting in front of the Labworth Café or down by the jetty, then reminiscing by Hadleigh Castle about his early Game of Thrones-style fantasies. There’s also a memorable final shot of Wilko emerging from the dome of the telescope on top of his Southend home. Let's hope he's enjoying Pluto.
As a meditation on life and death it’s inspiring stuff. Rather than do chemotherapy Wilko opts to live in the moment, feeling an ecstatic love of trees, clouds and everything else around him. “If it’s going to kill me I don’t want it to bore me!” he suggests.
Utilising Wilko’s love of literature there’s plenty of quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and even Icelandic sagas. Though Johnson remains resolutely atheist and looks forward to only “oblivion”. Temple intersperses it all with slow motion shots of petals unfolding and old film footage of David Niven as a crashed RAF pilot in A Matter of Life and Death. It all works surprisingly well.
We also have more vulnerable moments with Wilko still traumatised by the death of his wife Irene, and reminiscing about the joy he felt when his violent father died and the fact his family were always an embarrassment to his relatives.
There’s footage of a crazy arm-waving Japanese audience at his farewell gig and also the great recording sessions with Roger Daltrey for what was meant to be his final album. Just as it’s turning into a death-affirming eulogy, Wilko is offered hope when Charlie Chan, a photographer and surgeon who was in the audience at one of his gigs, suggests he have some tests at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He’s not sure if he’ll ever wake up after the operation, but after having a tumour the size of a baby cut out of his stomach Wilko survives and shows us the scars.
The scenes on the seawall of Wilko playing his guitar again for the first time since the operation are genuinely moving. “Bloody hell man, I’m supposed to be dead!” Julien and Wilko have done it right.
Check out ecstasyofwilkojohnson.com for details of screenings.