Films: Wesley Willis's Joyrides

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Wesley Willis's Joyrides

Wesley Willis's Joyrides

USA, 2008, 78 Minute Running Time
Genre/Subjects: African-American, Art, Documentary, Music, Social Issues
Program: Documentary Films
Language: English

DIRECTOR: Chris Bagley, Kim Shively
Producer: Chris Bagley, Kim Shively, Davis Coombe, Henry Ansbacher
Editor: Kim Shively
Screenwriter: Chris Bagley, Kim Shively
Cinematographer: Chris Bagley
Principal Cast: Wesley Willis

With over fifty rock albums and a teeming portfolio of ink-drawn cityscapes, street artist Wesley Willis makes fans wherever he goes, befriending all with a little headbutt. But this outsider artist also faces invisible demons from his past via frequent, incapacitating episodes of schizophrenia. In Wesley Willis’s Joyrides, first-time feature documentarians Chris Bagley and Kim Shively treat their subject with humor, pathos, and abiding affection, based on four years’ worth of interviews that capture both the brilliant and dark sides of this gentle giant.

His six-foot-five-inch, 300-pound frame shabbily clad, Wesley is often mistaken for a homeless man. But he actually enjoys a financially sound career as a revered artist and “rock ‘n roll machine,” in Bagley’s words. Because he always wanted to be an architect, Wesley uses a ballpoint to create intricate blueprintlike drawings of Chicago’s skylines and bustling expressways, sticking to neighborhoods far from the South Side projects where he grew up: “I’m running my ink pen. I’m running my mouth. I do it to stay outta jail.”

Meanwhile, childhood memories of his mother’s abusive boyfriend haunt him, coloring his artistic pursuits. Yet punctuating the themes of bestiality and murder are joyous shout-outs to fast-food chains and other pop-culture icons (“Rock-and-Roll McDonald's” stands one of his most popular songs). Thus alternating between mental “joyrides” and “hellrides,” Wesley’s life is never static—until leukemia cuts it short at age forty. Thanks to the work of Bagley, Shively, and the still-devoted fans who mourn him, however, Wesley Willis remains an “unstoppable show of art and music.”

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