Former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson is the latest rock legend to go under the microscope of Julien Temple, acclaimed director of Sex Pistols films The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle and The Filth And The Fury, as well as 2006’s Glastonbury. “He has a very interestingshape to his skull,” says Temple of the star of ‘The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson’, released July 17. “And what goes on in there is even more fascinating.”
In January 2013, Johnson – the mesmerising, rubbernecked musician, who made his name as a pub rock pioneer in the mid-1970s – was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He vowed to go on playing as long as he could in the 10 months doctors had given him to live, performing a farewell world tour and recording one last album with The Who’s Roger Daltrey, ‘Going Back Home’. This is where Temple came in, at first asked to make a music video for Daltrey and Johnson, before coming up with the idea for ‘The Ecstasy…’ when he learned about Johnson’s situation. The pair had first worked together when making Dr Feelgood film ‘Oil City Confidential’, Temple’s 2009 tribute to the Canvey Island quartet who helped pave the way for punk with their raw, revised take on rhythm and blues.
By this point, the beginning of 2014, Johnson had already surpassed the doctor’s prognosis, and that’s when filming began.
“We have a very strange relationship with death,” says Temple. “We love to see people being blown up or shot in movies or even beheaded on the news, but we don’t live with death at all.
“Then you have Wilko, who lives with it and accepts it and understands it’s not something to be terrified by. In talking about death, he tells us so much about life.”
About halfway through ‘The Ecstasy…’ comes the twist – the tumour on Johnson’s pancreas was removable after all, and as you can see onfilm, he has to once again recalibrate his thoughts, this time adjusting to no longer being terminally ill. “The important thing is Wilko has laughed all the way through,” explains Temple. “He says you’ve got to have a ‘sense of tumour’ about these things.”
In October Temple begins work on ‘You Really Got Me’, a drama about The Kinks based on books written by the band’s brothers Ray and Dave Davies. “We’ve been working with Ray and Dave on the script, and talking to them about what we can and can’t use in the film,” he explains. “They have been very involved.”
Ray Davies will be played by folk musician and actor Johnny Flynn, “a terrific guy and excellent actor”, with George MacKay of ‘Pride’ and ‘Sunshine On Leith’ playing Dave, and the director’s daughter – Hollywood actress Juno Temple – as Ray’s former wife Rasa. “The Kinks are the great underdog band of the ’60s,” adds Temple. “They never playedthe game, they always sat outside what they were meant to be and did their own thing, but they have been hugely influential,” listing David Bowie, glam rock’s gender-bending aesthetic, heavy metal, punk and Britpop as things directly inspired by the Davies brothers.
Thanks to the notoriously fraught relationship being the rock siblings, preliminary work on the film hasn’t quite been a walk in the park. “It’s been like the Greek banking crisis,” Temple says of the biopic. “There’s so much negotiating involved. It’s very love/hate between Ray and Dave, there’s a strong amount of both involved.”