Wesley Willis was a highly unlikely candidate for stardom – the six-foot-five, 300-pound schizophrenic product of a broken home on the South Side of Chicago who barely supported himself as a street artist before turning to music. Falling into the category of “outsider music,” Willis chanted and recited lyrical attacks at society to the accompaniment of intensive punk music. Although the mainstream briefly took notice of him in the mid-1990s, with appearances on MTV News and Howard Stern’s talk show, he was mostly an underground cult figure until his death in 2003 at the age of 40. Unless you wade in outsider music waters, you may never have known he existed.
“Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides” provides an overview of this unique man’s strange life, which mixed equal parts joy and tragedy. While Willis had great reason for anguish – chronic homelessness, being forced to take medication that did more harm than good, and run-ins with the law when his schizophrenia violently took the best of him – he was also the cause of great inspiration. The people who knew him ultimately came to love his creativity, vast artistic talent and indefatigable spirit. By the time of his death, he recorded more than 50 albums and drew thousands of intricate pictures (many found their way into prestigious private collections).
Chris Bagley and Kim Shively’s documentary might have been tighter as a short than a 78-minute feature – too much of the film is devoted to repetitious footage of Willis wandering about the streets or writing at a Kinko’s computer station, and minutia of his quirks (such as a passion for riding municipal buses) gets played up in favor of genuinely troubling questions (such as the blatant medical malpractice that may have rushed his untimely death).
Nonetheless, Willis was a colorful individual who managed to go far despite extraordinary obstacles in his path. “Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides” provides a sincere and loving tribute to an amazing man that, in a kinder world, could’ve become the superstar he imagined himself to be.