The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. London Film Premiere.

The last three years of Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson’s life have been well documented: Terminal cancer diagnosis, farewell tour, rapidly recorded Gold selling album Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey, intervention from cancer specialist and music photographer Charlie Chan, radical surgery at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and ultimately, survival.

Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy, Julien Temple & Dylan Howe at the premiere of the film The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy, Julien Temple & Dylan Howe at the premiere of the film The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

In 2009, award-winning documentary film maker Julien Temple made his critically acclaimed Oil City Confidential, recalling the rise of Dr Feelgood through the pre-punk era of the early 1970s. Johnson’s quirky character shone in Oil City and it established a rapport between the two men.

When Johnson and Daltrey needed a short film to promote Going Back Home, they turned to Temple – who used the opportunity to also record some interviews with Wilko. Those interviews became the basis for a new film entitled The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. On 7th July, I was privileged to attend the UK Premiere of Temple’s new work at The Picturehouse Central.

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

In what is essentially a 92 minute monologue, Johnson spends much of his time paying homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal – sat on the sea wall of his beloved Canvey Island, playing chess and discussing his imminent death with an image of himself dressed as the Grim Reaper. Johnson’s public response to his initial diagnosis – that he felt an elation and weight lifted from him in the knowledge that he just had to live in the moment – was widely reported at the time. This is documented in the film, but there are also moments when the guard drops just slightly, where Wilko’s underlying sadness at his situation is exposed. This is very emotive stuff, as is archive footage of his ‘farewell’ gigs in Japan (where he has a maniacal following) and at London’s KOKO.

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

But of course, this film about death takes a very unexpected turn. As Wilko said in a brief Q & A session after the screening: “If you wrote it in a book, it would be condemned as an improbable fiction”. Improbable fiction or not, Temple’s new film is a wonderful peek into the soul of a very special character; moving and life-affirming in equal measure, I would urge people to see it.

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

Tonight’s premiere was a charity event in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust and following the screening, the assembled audience ambled up Wardour Street to the 100 Club for a charity auction, an after-show party and a truly explosive, sweat drenched hour of the finest R&B you could ever wish to hear. The irony of Wilko’s story is that it afforded him a degree of attention that he hadn’t seen in decades. As a result, I’d not seen him perform in a really small venue for quite some time and to be honest, I’d forgotten just how good an experience that was. The 100 Club stage (no depth, very wide) played into his hands, allowing him plenty of room to scuttle left and right the way that he does – like a Red Bull infused crab with a short-term memory crises.

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

Norman Watt-Roy performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

Meanwhile, the human bass machine Norman Watt-Roy conducted his normal 4-string pyrotechnics and drummer Dylan Howe nailed the beat to the floor. They really are an outrageously good band and the outpouring of goodwill from this capacity crowd was a joy to behold.

Wilko Johnson performing at The 100 Club London on 07 July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

Dylan Howe performing with Wilko Johnson at The 100 Club London on 7th  July 2015 (Simon Reed/RockShot)

In a few days’ time, Wilko Johnson will enjoy his 68th birthday. As a result of his surgery, he is a diabetic and is missing some internal organs, including part of his stomach. He has a scar running up his middle that would make your eyes water (go see the film and you’ll get to see it). He really ought to be putting his feet up. On the strength of his performance at the 100 Club, there’s no prospect of that in his immediate future. Wilko is well and truly back and as good as he has ever been.

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The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is screening at selected cinemas from July 17th 2015th.

Review and Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own great site right here: www.musicalpictures.co.uk

 

 

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