‘The cosmic joke is actually very funny,’ grins Wilko Johnson, perched on the sea-wall overlooking the Thames Estuary and his beloved Canvey Island. The erstwhile schoolteacher, astronomer, professional eccentric, Doctor Feelgood guitarist and Coolest Man in the World (1974 edition) is dying of inoperable pancreatic cancer – an experience which has left him, as the film’s title suggests, bizarrely elated. Whatever the opposite of a shadow of your former self is, Wilko has become it: he’s loving life, playing to adoring crowds, recording a new album and preparing to go out with a bang. He’s even growing physically, as the massive tumour swells in his formerly wiry gut.
Only it turns out that the cosmic joke has an unexpected punchline, in the form of an expert physician called Charlie Chan and a last-minute trip to surgery. At which point Julian Temple’s affectionate documentary – part biopic, part arty collage film, part scenic ramble through Wilko’s synaptic labyrinth – transforms from a tribute to an only-just-living legend into a real-life tale of victory against the odds.
Refreshingly made for a mass audience rather than the Feelgood fanbase, Temple’s film is almost entirely free of archive footage, preferring clips from movies by Michael Powell and Andrei Tarkovsky, an odd couple that somehow perfectly illustrate the extreme opposites in Wilko’s personality. And there he is in the centre of it all: talking ten to the dozen, scratching his great bald dome and reflecting on a life well lived, and a death well cheated.