On August 21, 2003, at the age of 40, the six-foot-six, 300-plus-pound artist passed away as a result of complications from leukemia. But during his lifetime, Willis -- at one time a homeless artist who sold his pen drawings of the Chicago skyline for cash -- toured the world, winning over everyone with his signature head-butt (his way of letting you know he was your friend). His heart was in his art and his music, and regardless of how amateurish it may seem, it's some of the most honest recorded material to date. Not since John Nash, the brilliant mathman in A Beautiful Mind, have the masses fallen so hard for a schizophrenic.
Montreal's Daniel Bitton, director of the Willis documentary The Daddy of Rock N' Roll, which screens today at the Rice Media Center, had an epiphany when he first came across a Wesley Willis album in a record store. "I just saw the cover, and I saw the song titles and thought, 'There must be something to this.' I became obsessed," he says.
The film follows Willis around Chicago in 2000, at the height of the big guy's fame. He rides the bus, hawks CDs at Chicago-area record stores (at one, Houston Press assistant music editor Scott Faingold makes a cameo) and goes to the zoo. He also records and performs some new tunes and hangs out with longtime friends and his old schoolteachers. Everyone who comes in contact with the innocent artist adores him.
Well, he wasn't that innocent. "He was very intelligent. He knew how to manipulate people with his illness," says Bitton. "We were told [by his handlers] to try to avoid the fast food, but he'd say, 'My demons are giving me a hell ride. I need some McDonald's.' He was a real hustler." Rock on, Wesley.
Thu., April 13, 8 p.m.