Monday, June 22, 2009

DVD Recommendation - Wesley Willis: Daddy of Rock and Roll

There's a thin line between creativity and madness. In fact, I've often thought there isn't a line at all. I can't think of many creative people I've known, self included, who weren't screwed up in some way. Perhaps creativity is just a way for us all to work out our personal demons in the best way we can. Few of us, however, have had to deal with the types of demons Wesley Willis faced throughout his short life.

A diagnosed schizophrenic, Willis was a giant mountain of a man (6'5" and well over 300 pounds) with a lumbering gait and a permanent callus in the center of his forehead from headbutting people (which he considered a sign of affection). His odd, deliberate manner of speaking and the bizarre nature of a lot of what comes out of his mouth almost make him come across like some tragic Tracy Morgan character. He suffered a difficult childhood, and eventually began hearing voices that he identified as demons called Heartbreaker, Nervewrecker, and Meansucker. In most cases like this, Willis could've easily slipped through the cracks and become just another homeless person ranting at passing cars. But Willis chose to deal with his experiences by creating... first drawings, and later music. I won't try to describe Willis' music to you if you've never heard it. Track some down. I'm not saying you're going to love it, but his music is best experienced firsthand.

This film follows Willis around in his day to day life. Unlike many documentaries, there's no agenda here other than to just document a period of time in Willis' life. Interviews with Willis and his friends illuminate some of his history and background, but for the most part, you just see what his life was like. Some scenes are cringingly funny (particularly the one when he was writing the lyrics for a song called "Suck a Hyaena's Dick" in a Kinkos) others are awkwardly hard to watch as Willis tries to interact with people outside his immediate circle of friends. Let's face it, most people don't know how to respond when a stranger tells them they're buying a book about deer so they can "write beastiality songs to make the demons shut up."

Overall, though, you get a look into an extremely unique artist for whom music was a frayed tether to a reality he didn't live in. You can argue there is little artistic merit to his explicit lyrics or samey Casiotone music, but that isn't the point here. Willis used music to quite literally keep his demons at bay, and regardless of the nature of that music, he managed to make a living and lead a far more normal existence than many with his malady are able to. And he managed to bring a lot of people a lot of happiness in the process. If that isn't a statement about the power of music, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

audiate said...

Rock over London, Rock on Chicago!

Man, I missed a chance to see him play live (Chicago's only about an hour away from Milwaukee so my friends met him).

At least I have his cover of "Girls On Film" on a tribute CD and I heard him on a local radio station doing a live set, so that's something. :)