A terminal cancer diagnosis proves more liberating than traumatic for the historied rock-guitarist subject of “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson.” Julien Temple’s characteristically playful, pop-culture-savvy approach to the documentary form might seem ill suited to the subject of mortality, but veteran English axman Johnson’s unexpectedly buoyant response to very bad news makes for a film about saying goodbye that is itself void of grief, fear or regret. The engaging result should do well as a broadcast item, particularly wherever its protagonist has a substantial fan base.
That would likely preclude the U.S., where the band Johnson is primarily known for never got a commercial foothold. Indeed, he left the British R&B “pub rock” movement leader Dr. Feelgood after just six years in 1977, later fronting his own band, playing with Ian Dury and others — though little of that later history is recounted here. Instead, the focus is primarily on Johnson’s present tense in his mid-60s, when he discovers out of the blue that he has inoperable pancreatic cancer — and a life expectancy of about 10 months.
Having recently buried his wife of some 40 years, and as yet feeling fine (he decides to forgo chemo, which would likely add little time and much pain), he first sets about checking off a couple of bucket-list items: a last trip to his beloved Japan, where he plays some gigs, and finally the recording of a long-discussed album with his old friend Roger Daltry. (The latter, rather shockingly, proves the most commercially successful recording for either collaborator in more than 30 years.)
Then he has ample time to simply enjoy the heightened, near-euphoric sense of awareness he’s experienced since his diagnosis, saying, “The idea that death is really imminent makes you realize what a wonderful thing it is to be alive … In a way, you’re free of the grip of mortality. Your death is settled.” He finds the world “almost tingling with life,” a perception that Temple illustrates via various striking images, some new (including views of the chrome-domed subject bathed in psychedelic lights), others borrowed.
The latter are heavy on surreal visions suggestive of an afterlife, despite Johnson’s admitted atheism; they include clips from works by screen surrealists Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel and Sergei Parajanov, as well as spiritually questing classics like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” Also in the mix are filmed incarnations of Milton and Shakespeare, because, thick working-class accident notwithstanding, Johnson is indeed a “literary type” who would’ve alternately enjoyed a career in literary academia.
The documentary’s freeform but never meandering progress follows the course of his thoughts, which touch upon such matters as Viking lore and astronomy, but apart from a prolonged meditation on his lifetime home of Canvey Island in Essex, they seldom turn overtly autobiographical. Nor does he have much to say about his musical expertise, despite others’ occasional worshipful testimony on that score. (While we get frequent glimpses of his commanding stage presence, the film assumes we know where he rests in the guitar pantheon, and why.)
Digressive without being trivial, whimsical without getting too silly, “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” floats on its subject’s giddy death-sentence high until drama intrudes in the form of an unanticipated medical development. There’s a happy ending, by any standard, but at the same time its consequences bring on all the physical pain and emotional ambivalence he’d been miraculously spared while ostensibly at death’s door.
Onetime punk-scene enfant terrible Temple still seems in possession of boundless energy as a director, and its application in the documentaries that occupy him these days is joyful yet more thoughtfully honed than he ever managed in narrative features. (He hasn’t made one of the those since 2000’s uneven costume drama “Pandaemonium,” though an on-and-off Marvin Gaye biopic is still planned.) While not quite a major work, “Ecstasy” is delightfully alive, inventive and droll, very much like its unassuming subject, and its perspective on terminal illness is a rare tonic. Assembly is first-rate down the line.