Skip to main content

The Vault: Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll ★ ★ ★

say RAH!
You say RAOW!
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Wesley Willis' music has heard stories about the man who made the music. Tales of the 400 pound behemoth who has a permanent welt of his head from headbutting the people he likes are contrasted against his mental illness and the tough life he lived.

Willis' music would be described as outsider art. Music was his passion, and he wasn't in any way classically trained. Many of his songs are little more than a few repetitive lyrics set to a digital keyboard playing in demo mode. The simplicity of the music and the humourous lyrics make for very accessible music, which led to its popularity. However, it's easy to feel that you're being exploitative when enjoying one of these songs. After watching the film, I no longer feel like this is correct.

Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll tells Wesley's story. He lived a hard life that was punctuated by some of the worst that humanity can deliver. He also fought a battle with schizophrenia that started (as is often the case) early in his adult life that he wrestled with until his death (shortly after this documentary was released).

So many people with severe mental illness end up living on the streets. Cultural stigmas against mental illness culminate in a situation where physical health is considered to be an asset to the community, but mental health is a personal liability. It's a false dichotomy; the mind and the body are one. Health is health, and illness is illness. We shouldn't have a society where certain illnesses go untreated because of prejudice. We should strive for a society where people with mental illness aren't ostracized. Luckily for Wesley, he had an artistic gift that enabled him to succeed in spite of these hurdles.

The film is not the best documentary ever produced, but it succeeds because of the source material. Upon seeing the film, it's apparent that Willis' rock career was a triumph of his character (with a lot of help from friends) over unbelievable odds. We also learn that his confrontational, profanity-laced songs (e.g. Suck a Camel's Ass) are his way of confronting "his demon." It's inspirational.

The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll shows that a severe mental illness can be overcome to reach success, with perseverance and the right environment. It also shows the remarkable story of a lovable giant winning the fight.

Rock over London. Rock on Chicago.

Popular posts from this blog

Review: Anomalisa

Weird is rarely used as a good quality in film criticism, but few words so completely describe Charlie Kaufman’s work as weird does. All of his films are a window into his very particular worldview, and that p.o.v. is certainly unlike anything seen in pop culture. For that reason, Anomalisa became an entry on many most anticipated lists for 2015. That Kaufman chose stop-motion to tell this story made the picture an event. So it came as a disappointment when the film was one of the year’s more mundane efforts.

Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have an energy and heart at the center that is not present here. Previous collaborators like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were able to temper the overwhelming negativity Charlie Kaufman occasionally falls prey to, but, this time, the writer doesn’t have a director to rein things in. In all of his efforts to create an experience that is both familiar and alienating, Kaufman may have accidentally created something host…

Review: Selma

It may surprise many that Martin Luther King Jr. never received the celluloid treatment prior to Selma. Sure he had been mentioned in other historical pieces, but short of documentary footage, King was never given center stage. Quite shocking given the man's legacy and the lingering effect of his efforts still felt today. Several years of production and a director change later, Selma arrives as the film worthy of the man.

Review: The Salvation

Westerns have never recovered from the oversaturation that killed off viewer interest decades ago, but every now and then a gem pops up. Recent successes like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen brothers adaptation of True Grit all did well because they tweaked the genre slightly, but director Kristian Levring goes with an old school approach. A faithful recreation of those revenge Westerns made so popular in the 1970s, The Salvation envelopes many elements of previous Clint Eastwood classics and wraps it into a tidy package.

The Salvation starts in on the central dilemma, joining Jon (Hannibal‘s Mad Mikkelsen) at the train station where he awaits the arrival of his wife and son. Jon and his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), have lived in the United States long enough to build a hospitable life for their family back in Denmark. This homecoming should be a sweet moment to establish the family important to Jon, but fate plays out…