Cadiz Music [Release date 21.12.15]

This is a work of bizarre genius. What was presumably conceived by film and music director Julien Temple as an epitaph for Wilko Johnson has turned out to be an uplifting story of life-affirmation. Not to mention bullet-dodging.

The film focuses on what was expected to be the final year in the life of guitar legend Wilko Johnson. Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer early in 2013. Sat on the sea wall on Canvey Island he chats frankly about the 3kg tumour he is lugging about in his abdomen. He discusses his life, passions, motivations and reflections over an extended game of chess with the Grim Reaper.

The depiction hinges on the moment when Charlie Chan – photographer, fan and cancer doctor saw Wilko at a gig looking too well and concludes that “This can’t be what they say it is.” The second half of the film examines the life-saving operation and the aftermath.

This is Temple at his best. His treatment of the subject eschews any trace of cheap sentiment. The appearance of the Death on the Thames estuary is just one example of the irony, gallows humour and pathos that powers the film.

Every few moments, there is a cut to archive material that emphasises the narrative. Sometimes this is achieved with ruthless simplicity, such as the huge, sun-glittered scythe in the first few moments, or the flashing blades and puncturing needles that illuminate the descriptions of the nine-hour operation. Other times it is with baffling surreality: clips of jumping frogs, gilded roses or geometric patterns that are beyond my very literal interpretations. I loved Temple’s sidelong look at Dr Feelgood in “Oil City Confidential” a few years ago. But this is a very different film indeed.

Wilko’s story of dignified acceptance of the disease and then unexpected restoration to health was played out in real time during that 18 month period. What this film achieves is an enhanced understanding of his experience, against Temple’s entertaining, wry cinematic landscape. Shining through is our hero’s beguiling frankness and copper-bottomed frankness.

“If it’s gonna kill me, I don’t want it to bore me!” he says to the big fella in the hooded cloak, over a chess move. The camera pans round to reveal is Wilko, in alter-ego form, shrouded in the Grim Reaper’s attire.

When he says “One of the things that has made this tolerable, if you like, is that I’ve just been so lucky. I’ve had a splendid life and to demand more just seems greedy”, there is no doubting his sincerity.

The pic is laced with some decent clips of live action too: the emotional gigs in Japan shortly after the original diagnosis; the charged farewell tour in 2013, including some staggering performances at Koko that I was lucky enough to see; and a couple of glorious moments from the Feelgood’s heyday. Most poignant though, is the moment Wilko picks up his guitar during the recuperation and, stood in the Canvey Island shingle, strums out his first notes in months. Even then the drama is filtered. “God me hands are freezin’” he grins.

This is a fittingly offbeat testimony to a unique individual. Recommended.  ****½

Review by Dave Atkinson

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