Newly released on DVD, Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides is a beautifully assembled biographical documentary of one of Chicago’s most unique artists. Wesley Willis was a diagnosed chronic schizophrenic who found a way to turn both his art and his music into a reliable source of income over his tragically shortened life; he died at 40 of leukemia in 2003. Willis’s twin careers as both an artist and musician fascinated some, offended others, and were marginalized by still others.
His career as a visual art is sometimes even further obscured by the same subset of fans who loved his music. While it is easy to dismiss his ballpoint-pen artwork of cityscapes, to do so is to do Wesley a huge disservice. I wasn’t aware that to a degree, Wesley had formal architectural drawing experience. The amount of detail in his drawings is staggering, and the fact that years after he’d visited a certain city he could draw a building or a subway tunnel from memory is an astounding ability. The movie shows Wesley in the latter part of his life while drawing, and it’s fascinating to see the artist in action.
Willis’s storied musical career is also recounted in wonderful first person accounts from people like Dale Meiners, his bandmate in the Fiasco, and Jello Biafra, one of the guys who released Willis’s CDs. Willis’s former roommates and even family members give loving yet unvarnished accounts of both the good and bad circumstances of his troubled past and his day-to-day life. We find out that one of the reasons that Willis wrote such deliberately offensive lyrics (his “bestiality” songs, as he referred to them) was to try to silence the three demons in his head which haunted him daily: Heartbreaker, Nervewrecker, and Meansucker. Other times, he was just trying to be as funny as the songs seemed. The documentary is the most complete account we have of Wesley Willis’s life. It even tastefully covers the circumstances of his death, and of his life in the hospice where he eventually passed. I definitely finished the movie with a lump in my throat.
One of the fascinating devices that they use as interstitial elements between segments is computer animation of Willis’s artwork. While the animations are rudimentary, I’m certain that Wesley Willis himself would have been charmed by them; from what I can tell, he had a certain youthful enthusiasm that would have delighted in seeing his own artwork animated in this fashion.
I highly recommend this DVD to anyone who wants to know a story of triumph over adverse circumstances, art being made by a passionate guy with a couple of strikes against him from the start, or just a great peek into what made Wesley Willis tick. The filmmakers not only had a lot of affection for Willis, they were thorough in choosing who to interview and what to include. The result is both a great film and a wonderful tribute to one of Chicago ‘s treasures.