Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Wesley Willis’s Joyrides

Wesley Willis's Joy Rides

Movie: Wesley Willis’s Joyrides (2009)

Directed by: Chris Bagley and Kim Shively

Starring: Wesley Willis

I’ve been waiting for this movie for a long time. Shortly after rock and roll hero Wesley Willis died of leukemia in 2003, and not long after the first documentary to focus on the schizophrenic musician, The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll, came out, rumors of another documentary began circulating. A few clips were posted on the internet, but for years nothing more was said about the film. Well, Wesley Willis’s Joyrides is finally out, and as expected, it put a big smile on my face.

As opposed to the first film’s more day-in-the-life perspective of Wesley Willis, Joyrides takes a larger view of the man. The film rides a slow path through his troubled upbringing and his life drawing the streets and buildings of Chicago before arriving at his music career. In fact, it’s Wesley’s art and not his music which provides the neatest aspect of this story, as the creators of Joyrides animated some of his drawings. The effect is just magnificent.

Many people come out of the woodwork to paint Wesley’s story. Many of these folks are close friends and supporters from the Chicago art and music scenes: bandmates, fellow artists, and people who looked after him when no one else would. Yet the telling of Wesley’s youth and many of the terrible things that happened to him falls largely to members of his family. The time the Willis family spends onscreen ranges from informative to disturbing. Two of his brothers are among the film’s best sources in explaining why Wesley Willis was the way he was. On the other hand, Wesley’s father appears to be cashing in on his son’s fame in order for some screen time. The man is described as a horribly neglectful father, which he in so many words dismisses by stating that he “didn’t realize how great that boy was” until everybody else did. Nice.

To be sure, there’s a lot of exploitation and neglect in Wesley Willis’ life. Yet in spite of the many upsetting aspects of his life, directors Chris Bagley and Kim Shively ultimately keep their focus on what made Wesley so endearing and loveable to so many people. Wesley’s freakouts aren’t hushed up, but his humor and delight are far more pronounced, qualities which overwhelm everyone he meets. Even while facing death, Willis keeps his spirits high, singing a song praising his cancer doctor and playing his old classic “The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up.”

The film of Wesley’s life is every bit as contagious as the man himself. It’s a hard and lonely road between the joyrides, but Wesley Willis’s Joyrides is exactly what it claims to be.

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