Wesley Willis (1963 - 2003)
was a Chicago artist and musician who enjoyed a short but significant
burst of fame in the mid-to-late 1990s, when his band, the Wesley Willis
Fiasco, toured widely. Willis suffered from paranoid schizophrenia,
which appears to have had its onset following a knife attack that left
him with a long, scaly scar down the right side of his face. Despite
his premature death from leukemia at age 40, Willis left behind a huge
body of work. His simple, repetitive, hilarious, and often profane
songs number in the hundreds (he recorded about 50 albums), and his
innumerable ballpoint and marker drawings of the Dan Ryan Expressway
and other cityscapes represent a significant contribution to the art
Chris Bagley and Kim Shively's
film Wesley Willis's Joy Rides chronicles Willis's life,
from cradle to grave. Most of the documentary's original footage
appears to have been shot over the last three years of its subject's
life. What the filmmakers ended up with was a portrait of a man
equally disturbed, joyful, prolific, gifted, energetic, and beloved.
Willis started out using Chicago's Genesis Art Supplies as a base
of operations. There, he'd obtain his materials - ballpoints,
color markers, posterboard - and draw fastidiously detailed views
of the city that displayed a fine architectural accuracy, along with
an odd use of perspective. Often, Willis used double vanishing
points, placing his point of view at the image's center.
Willis set himself up on the
sidewalk outside Genesis, drawing at a table that also held a selection
of his CDs for sale. Willis's music was his second passion,
and he was just as productive in that area, if not more so, as he was
making art. His songs usually consisted of spoken-word lyrics
over a simple synthesizer beat, with the sung repetition of the song's
title serving as a chorus. Songs like "Rock and Roll McDonald's"
and "I Whipped Spiderman's Ass" typify this structure. The
bulk of the lyrics are usually stream-of-consciousness rants that incorporate
observations and events from Willis's life. Later songs that
address bestiality (like "Suck a Cheetah's Dick") were meant to
shame and drive away the demons that haunted Willis's brain.
Those demons started visiting
him in 1989. As Willis himself describes in the film, they took
him on "hellrides," calling him obscene names. Willis's
innate response was to yell back at them, one-upping their use of profanity,
and smack himself in the head. This kind of behavior got him thrown
off buses, out of shops, and once, briefly, resulted in him being committed
against his will. Willis's schizophrenia, however, did not slow
down his productivity, even while his medications slowed his physical
activity. He continued to draw, write songs, and tour, even making
it to Europe at least once.
One thing Bagley and Shively's
highlight in their moving film is how much people cared about Willis
and how much he reciprocated the feelings of his friends and fans.
Despite his many handicaps - besides his mental illness, Willis was
hugely overweight and was hard-pressed to maintain his personal hygiene
- Willis had many friends who took him in when he needed a place to
stay, and saw to it that he was safe and had drawing materials and access
to musical equipment and recording studios. Willis was absolutely
driven to create and committed to art and music. His strange,
unique mind and point-of-view was well worth protecting, and Wesley's
friends and associates made his work possible, when it could have very
well been lost - trapped within the walls of an institution, or worse.
This fine film, a mere 77 minutes,
captures the endless energy behind Wesley Willis's huge personality
and prodigious output. Ridicule, which could have dogged someone
like Willis, never distracted him, and his mind, while plagued by awful
voices that would have decimated the average person, was remarkably
free. Willis loved his work, and he loved living, and this film
is an effective testament to a rare human being and his challenging,
disturbing, wonderful, and hilarious work.
The full-frame transfer comes from a video master and the results
are about what you'd expect from a low-budget documentary. Although
low-light shots are quite choppy, everything else is quite clear and
The stereo soundtrack is perfectly serviceable. In places
where recording was less than optimal, or when Willis's words are
mumbled or slurred, subtitles are provided. Music comes off very
There is a selection of Deleted Scenes that runs just under
an hour; there is some good stuff here that, although wisely cut, makes
a good supplement for those who enjoy the feature. There is also
a short Audio Recording of Willis made by a friend. An
Art Gallery of Willis's drawings is a very welcome bonus; the
Still Gallery is less essential.
Wesley Willis's Joy Rides is a vibrant, entertaining, and moving
portrait of a gifted, driven artist who left a sizable legacy of artwork
and music. A unique man who refused to be limited by painful mental
illness, Willis's story is unexpectedly uplifting. Highly
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.