Chris Bagley’s favorite Wesley Willis song is, appropriately enough, “Chris Bagley.” It’s a signature Willis friendship song in which the rock and roll hero pays tribute to his buddy. Kim Shively has her own song in this style, but she lists her favorite as either “NFL Shit” or “The Turkey was Wild” – the latter describing a fateful encounter she had with a wild bird, immortalized in song by Wesley. The pair’s tributes are found on Willis’ 2001 album Full Heavy Metal Jacket, and Wesley also has songs which call out Bagley’s brother and dog for special distinction. He must have been really excited about the movie which the two were making about him.
Around the same time as they were being lauded in Full Heavy Metal Jacket, Bagley and Shively were setting up shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, forming their filmmaking imprint, Eyeosaur Productions. Having met as film students at the Colorado Film and Video Instructional Studios (now the Colorado Film School), the pair teamed up on experimental projects and short films before moving on to documentaries. One of their short films featured a cameo by Wesley Willis as a cowboy.
Bagley explained his move toward being a documentary filmmaker. “It was an interesting time at film school because everything was just at that moment [when] it was starting to go digital. It changed the work flow. There was a documentary class in film school, and at that point it became obvious that doing documentary on digital video was a viable option. It was something that you could do and maybe not break the bank, maybe get a lot more coverage.”
The name Eyeosaur quickly evokes thoughts of vision and dinosaurs (and, similarly, a song on Full Heavy Metal Jacket has Wesley singing about his own record label, Earosaur Productions). Yet Bagley also derives the company’s philosophy from a skewed homophone. “All the things I’ve ever been drawn to are things like eyesores, things that are kind of on the edge of society that are crumbling nuisances.”
Continuing their explorations of such fringe characters, Eyeosaur’s current project involves the world of Lucha Libre wrestling, the focus including its deep history in Mexico and growing popularity in the United States. Bagley also hinted at the possibility of a future film concerning Live-Action Role Players. Yet Eyeosaur’s achievement of the moment is the release of Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides, a film which may well be the definitive look at Wesley’s life. Reaction to the film has been positive; having made the rounds at various film festivals, Joy Rides won the Gold Hugo for the Chicago Award at the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival.
Wesley Willis certainly qualified as an Eyeosaur candidate. Indeed, to more than a few he is that very eyesore who most would rather be hidden away from view. A schizophrenic colossus, Wesley is best known for singing along to preprogrammed keyboard accompaniment, his songs almost always adhering to the same template, right down to the “Rock over London, Rock on Chicago” which invariably closed each song. Wesley was prone to outburst, sang foul-mouthed songs about drugs, violence, and bestiality, and he bumped heads with so many people that he developed a permanent bruise on the center of his forehead. His life story wasn’t any more benign; he was often the victim of severe acts of neglect, exploitation, and violence.
No, he wasn’t for everyone, but therein lays the genius of Wesley Willis – he didn’t need to be for anyone. Through Wesley’s sincere and unwavering conviction that he was a rock star – albeit one free of the usual entitlements and pretense – he became one, and more people than might have been expected got that, and loved him. When he died in 2003, many people genuinely mourned him. (I learned of Wesley’s death as I was heading out my door to go to an amusement park. It was the saddest, most lifeless day I’ve spent on roller coasters.)
“Before I ever even met him, he changed the way I see everything, just by listening to his music,” Bagley said. “I never really saw the novelty of McDonald’s until I heard ‘Rock and Roll McDonald’s.’ Then I never could look at McDonald’s the same way again. I felt like I somewhat knew him before I met him, because he was so prolific with his songwriting and there were so many aspects of his life that he touched on. It just felt very real to me, and it was kind of refreshing. There’s so much music out there that’s full of people fronting, so when you come across something that’s as genuine as Wesley’s music, it’s a breath of fresh air.
“Once I met him, he was even more compelling, because he wanted to give me a headbutt! Once I got my first headbutt from Wesley, I thought that someone needed to document this guy’s life. That never came into focus until years later, when I had the ability to do that.”
Wesley has been the subject of many documentaries, the other most notable being The Daddy of Rock n’ Roll. Yet while the tendency of most of these films was to simply follow him around and allow the viewer to react as he or she saw fit, the scope of Joy Rides is monumental, examining all aspects of Wesley’s life and filling his story with context. To put the difference in perspective, Bagley – who followed the production of the other film – estimated that the crew of Daddy followed Wesley around for about a week. The creation of Joy Rides took almost a decade, amassing around 100 hours of footage of friends, family, and the man himself.
Shively summed up the mission statement of Joy Rides as follows: “The intention was never to make a day-in-the-life film. We wanted to do something more in-depth. We had always envisioned it to be a film that was made with him; it was his film. When he got sick, that changed the whole direction, so it became something that showed him for who he was: an amazing person. A lot of people misunderstood him; we wanted to show the guy that we knew.
“Chris shot his first footage of Wesley in 1999. From then until 2003 we filmed with Wesley on and off. When Wesley got sick and passed away, we weren’t sure if we were going to finish the film or not, and it took another year or two to get back on it. We went back and did a lot of interviews after that. It was a really long process; we officially finished editing and cutting the film in 2008.”
Bagley described the process involved in documenting such a subject, noting Wesley’s frequent visits to Wyoming to make himself available. “Originally we just wanted to make a documentary about Wesley, because we thought he was such a unique individual that his experiences needed to be documented. Then, when he’d come and stay for a month or so, there would be so much time when we weren’t shooting anything. The thing that I’ll probably take away the most are all the in-between times. He just kept coming.”
One time Wesley stayed with Bagley and Shively for so long that Chris suggested they head back to Chicago to visit. At another point, they ended up in London with him. “At first it was like we were fans of Wesley doing the documentary,” Bagley continued. “Quickly, we became friends of Wesley, and the documentary was secondary.”
One of the most interesting parts of Joy Rides is its initial focus on Wesley’s prodigious drawings of the buses and towers of his Chicago landscape (the footage of Wesley in Wyoming shows him seeking out the trains instead, showing his inclination toward mass transit). His friends from the art world spend much of the film’s first act discussing Wesley’s talent for perspective and his photographic memory.
“I don’t think we ever made a plan,” Shively said in describing their focus on art, “it just happened organically. The history of his art became just as compelling as the music. It’s just as important, just maybe overlooked because he’s more known for his music.”
In fact, it could be argued that Wesley’s art career eclipsed his music. “He was every bit as prolific when it came to his drawings as he was with his music.” Bagley said. “[For] a lot of people who didn’t know he was an artist, that was the part of the documentary that they really responded to the most. It blew some people out of the water to see that part of him.
“He started doing drawings in the early 80s. I ended up getting a drawing of his from the 80s that I’m really happy about. It was an amazing piece. He was doing that for years before he got into music. It’s really powerful, the way he would lay down his marker or pen and just go to town. There was never a moment of hesitation; he just went for it. I think that goes for his musical career, too.”
This focus led to Eyeosaur animating some of Wesley’s artwork and bringing it to life. Bagley stated that the idea came to him in a waking dream, after which he convinced Wesley to animate the self-portrait which introduces the film. Shively offered a less esoteric rationale.
“I think it was important to convey the scale of those drawings because they were so huge. If you just take a still picture of it you don’t get a perspective of the scale or the depth or the detail. It was lots and lots of photos and scanning. We didn’t want to go overboard on animating it, so a guy named Chad Herschberger, who had helped us with the film and was a friend of Wesley’s, we worked with him on the animation and described to him what we wanted, and he did it just how we had hoped. You don’t want to change the nature of the art, but you want to bring it to life somehow, so we tried to find a balance.”
Chad Herschberger, it should be noted, also got his own song on Full Heavy Metal Jacket.
Yet all this work was almost completely derailed by Wesley’s illness and death. “It’s okay to have a thought of what you want it to be, but documentaries have a way of going their own way,” Bagley said. “When Wesley passed away, it was really hard. We couldn’t even look at any of the video for a long time afterwards. We had no objectivity, because we were so close to Wesley at that point. We got some perspective on it; it took us quite a while, and that’s why it’s been so long. It took years and years. It got to the point where it was so personal for us that to try to consider it some product and shoot it out the door just didn’t feel right. We wanted to go around and interview people. We were trying to do it justice with the resources we had. But eventually you just have to get it out and let people have a chance to see it. There were some moments in there that I felt like I was hording by not having it out for people to see. There may be a day when more of the unedited footage might end up getting released, but that’s probably years off.”
Shively explained the financial reasons behind the film’s delay. “We wanted Wesley to be a part of the whole process, and [then] he was gone and we had lost a friend. It was kind of a big thing to deal with and then to think about what we were going to do. We had a responsibility to put this film out there, [but] another aspect of it was that we had no outside funding. It was [done] on our own time when we could afford to do stuff. We got a little money when we started editing, but it takes a long time when you have to work full-time jobs. We also didn’t want to rush it; we wanted to be really careful about how we were putting the film together.”
The second act of the film’s production began at Wesley’s funeral. It was here where Bagley and Shively met many of Wesley’s friends and family and encouraged them to share their memories of him. Among the crowd of close friends, art patrons, and cohorts in music, one group of interviewees comes to dominate the narrative of Joy Rides in explaining how Wesley became the man he was – his family.
There’s a moment in the film in which Wesley’s brother Michael provides a lucid insight into the Willis family’s terribly troubled dynamic. In describing life in the Stateway Gardens housing projects where the family lived, Michael noted his neighbors’ aversion to the Willises. “People in fact didn’t like us at all when we were over there,” he said. “They ridiculed us constantly. We were ‘The Willis family. Don’t talk to them; they’re crazy!’”
This line illustrates a larger point made by the film – that Wesley’s mental illness wasn’t an isolated case. The even-handed perspectives of Michael Willis rank him among the film’s most compelling subjects. Yet with some of the other family members featured in the film – including two more of Wesley’s brothers and his father – something seems, at best, off-center.
“We tried to get in contact with as many of his family members as we could,” Bagley said. “It became obvious right away that he came from a broken home, that a lot of his family didn’t have a whole lot to say. We tried to put the ones in there that had the closest ties to Wesley; unfortunately, none of them really had very close ties to Wesley. Michael was very articulate, and his physicality is very similar to Wesley, so it made sense to have him. Ricky had probably the closest ties.
“The interesting thing about Ricky is that he’s a lot like Wesley. He has this photographic memory; he knows every street of Chicago by heart to the point where he can make model buildings by memory. His abilities are definitely lopsided, because he’s not able to communicate as easy, but we really love Ricky. We became close to him since Wesley passed away. He always calls, and he’s especially fond of the ladies, [so] he always calls Kim. But he calls me a lot, too.”
One aspect of the film which disturbed me, one I couldn’t help but feel cynical about, was the appearance of Wesley’s father. Being filmed alongside Ricky, Walter Willis Sr. – who himself died around the time of Joy Rides’ release – appeared to mug for the camera, and he made a point about how a person’s kin sometimes doesn’t realize that person’s goodness until everyone else does. To me, the interview came off as callous and a bit exploitative. Bagley and Shively didn’t see it that way.
“His dad was a pretty complicated person,” Shively said. “I think he had a lot of guilt when Wesley passed away because he didn’t pay attention to his career. I think it’s also important to notice that his dad had mental illness – I think he had schizophrenia – so he was not equipped to be a good dad in that sense. That time we were there visiting with him, he genuinely was sad that he didn’t know more about Wesley’s life. He was very disapproving of what Wesley did when Wesley was alive, but I also think he didn’t understand it. I don’t think he tried to benefit from Wesley’s fame in any way I can see.”
Bagley noted a specific moment which showed Mr. Willis’s love for his son. “We were just sitting outside of the funeral home, way early. No one else had even shown up yet. We saw this old guy going up and down the street, clearing the sidewalk and street of trash because he didn’t want there to be any trash at his son’s funeral.
“He had his own demons, [but] for somebody who has mental illness to open up their door and let you see his life, I felt like he was very warm to let us be there, especially in the context of having his son just pass away. I think his dad was extremely genuine.”
With much of Eyeosaur’s work on this film involved prolonged encounters with people with mental illness, it goes without saying that the directors of Joy Rides emerged with a changed perspective on the mentally ill.
“I’m less fearful of people who are walking down the street talking to themselves,” Shively said. “I’m more intrigued by those people now because I think they have so much to offer. Just because they maybe can’t function the way society thinks [they ought to], we sort of miss out on what they have to give to the world. I think Wesley helped me understand mental illness.”
“I didn’t realize how much reverse discrimination there is,” Bagley said. “People are so afraid of being accused of exploitation that they’ll stop dead in their tracks, and then these people don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else. I think, in general, people would rather have people who are mentally ill out of sight and out of mind. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as soon as legitimate people that are doing legitimate work turn their backs on people who are mentally ill, all these vampires have a tendency of filling the void. In the end, a lot of these people are really being exploited, but it’s only because everyone else has turned their back on them.”
He noted that Wesley’s chosen career wasn’t exactly predator-free, either. “[In] the music industry, people who aren’t mentally ill are exploited all the time. But they want to be exploited; they’re putting themselves out there to be exploited just to get that first record deal, just so they can get their foot in the door.”
Yet as Bagley and Shively conveyed in their film, Wesley’s story is a success story. Despite having every obstacle in the world seemingly against him, the man made a career doing what he loved, and he made a lot of people happy doing it.
Shively discussed the reaction to the film. “It’s interesting, because you have the people who watch it who are fans, and you have people who have no idea who he is who watch it. The nice thing is that a lot of people have said that they did know about his music, they knew that he was this ‘crazy person,’ but the film showed him as a really amazing person who achieved an incredible amount of work in his short life. That was the nicest thing to hear, that people really did walk away with a deeper sense of who Wesley was.”
When asked what about Wesley Willis made him so amazing, both acknowledged Wesley’s talent as a hustler and his fearlessness. Beyond this, Bagley and Shively emphasized different aspects of his character: Bagley praised his sense of freedom (referring to him as a “Han Solo”), whereas Shively noted his intelligence and sense of humor.
When asked what a success Wesley’s says about the music industry at large, both had a lot to say.
“He was ahead of the game as far as being out there and self-promoting,” Shively replied. “He did have a relationship with Alternative Tentacles, [the label, run by the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, which put out his three “Greatest Hits” albums,] but I think he’s proof that you don’t need to be tied to all this press and publicity. The record industry is not really there anymore. Now everyone’s doing what Wesley was doing 20 years ago. It’s just great that he was so successful.
“The one thing about him that was really great was that his fan base was so diverse. He had young punk kids, but he also had businessmen who were millionaires, and they liked his music. His music appealed to everyone, and he didn’t discriminate.”
“The problem with art and artists,” Bagley said, “is that it usually comes from a place of privilege. The fact that Wesley had no privilege, that he came from the hardest situation anyone can imagine, a broken home on the south side of Chicago, and he was able to find his way – that’s an amazing accomplishment. In the music and art communities, it’s great to have some fresh voices, and Wesley was a completely fresh perspective.”
Bagley also noted Wesley’s strange ability to take corporate slogans and make them his own. “The one that I think most applies to Wesley is the one I always loved to hear him say: Nike’s ‘Just Do It.’ I never, never liked it when I heard it on the Nike commercial, but with Wesley saying it, it felt like the real deal.”
Wesley Willis is a man who cut a wide streak of legend throughout his life, and as such, there are a lot of people who have great stories about him. One of the best parts about my conducting these interviews with people who knew and loved Wesley – which I’m also assuming was one of Bagley’s and Shively’s favorite parts of making their documentary – was hearing some of these tales of Wesley and cutting through some of the surreal mythos surrounding him.
For example: in his songs Wesley often mentioned things and concepts that didn’t always seem real. One piece of evidence is shown in the film, as Wesley’s old friend Carla Winterbottom described her confusion when reading some of his lyrics which mentioned defenestration (it means to drop from a high place). In the course of our conversation, Bagley deflated a conspiracy theory of mine linking Wesley and the film Mac and Me by explaining that his signature song, “Rock and Roll McDonald’s,” is based on an actual restaurant in Chicago which mixes Big Macs with the Hard Rock Café. Furthermore, both Bagley and I have sought out and obtained Hoisin sauce due to Wesley’s mention of it in a song.
Both Shively and Bagley, in recounting their favorite Wesley stories, mentioned a scene in Joy Rides showing Wesley in the film’s most joyous moment. He was almost exploding with laughter as he tried not to swear in a restaurant and failed.
“He wasn’t having a hellride,” Shively explained. “He was just being funny and reading out loud from one of his songbooks which had a lot of profanity in it. He was cracking himself up, cause we kept saying, ‘Wesley, they’re gonna kick us out!’ He just couldn’t stop! It was the funniest thing. And then he finally said, ‘Suck my Dick… Cavett!’ as if he did this play on words all the time.”
When cops strolled in, Wesley tried to tone it down. “Any time he saw a cop,” Shively continued, “he’d say ‘I’m not gonna break the law’ out loud to let the cops know he was cool. I think he was saying it more to himself. Who knows.”
It was a great moment, yet there was one more Wesley story which Bagley told which had me doubled with laughter.
“We ended up going to one of these aquarium places. There was a father talking to his son, and there was a tank full of otters. Wesley was checking out the otters, and I was in the background listening to this whole thing. The father was telling the son: ‘The otters! They’re the clowns of the sea!’
“And then Wesley chimed in and said: ‘I can see his dick.’”
“Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides” is available now. More information can be found at www.wesleywillissjoyrides.com.