YouTube can be a source of deeper subject matter than cats, cats and more cats. If you know where to look, you can find great comedy, amazing performances by amateur musicians and full-length films by real filmmakers. Such was the case when my editor recently passed me a link to a blog on the Houston Press’ website listing 20 great rock ‘n’ roll documentaries that are absolutely free on YouTube.
Some of these are very popular and well made. Films like “The Beatles Anthology” and the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” are essential viewing for fans of rock music. Other, less-known films are about metal or the Pixies or Amy Winehouse or Pearl Jam. These are all niche type films—films that appeal to those who obsess over a genre or artist.
While I’m sure they are all excellent in their own way, I tend to be drawn to documentaries that are foreign to me, with subject matter or people about which I know nothing. I was lucky in this respect, in that this article led me to a spectacular documentary about a Chicago artist, one who defied the odds and mental illness to become not only successful, but also memorable and touching as well. “Wesley Willis’s Joyrides” is exceptional—full of resonating emotion and tenderness. It is a film that everyone should see. After checking out the list, watch this one first.
Willis was a very large, powerful and sympathetic presence in Chicago. He was a schizophrenic, a man who fought off the demons in his head on a daily basis. He heard voices, spoke in a strange, halting manner and like most people with mental illness, had difficulty with housing and hygiene. An incredible visual artist, Willis spent most of his days drawing the highways and skylines of the “City with Big Shoulders” with exquisite lines and expressive detail. He was a salesman, making a living from selling his drawings and CDs, often times carrying thousands of dollars on his person because he never used a bank. Most famously, he was a musician who toured constantly, with spoken-word, free-form poetry like “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” set to a background of punk power chords. The 2008 documentary shows Willis as an experience, a man full of idiosyncrasies, who loved performing and people. Willis succumbed to leukemia in 2006 and his loss is a shame.
I used to haunt open mic nights in my youth and remember a man who carried a Casio keyboard with him and performed spoken word songs very much like Wesley Willis. I guess everything comes from somewhere. I remember loving his performance, welcoming the departure from starry-eyed teenage rock stars and aging southern rock dignitaries who performed every night. I have also worked with people who suffer from mental illness. I know several people, just like Willis, who are an absolute riot and a genuine pleasure to be around. I know people who choose illness over medicine for the sake of their art. They deserve our encouragement and our love. Chattanooga is full of characters like Wesley Willis. They just haven’t been discovered yet.
20 Free Rock Documentaries on YouTube
• “When You’re Strange” (The Doors)
• “Until The Light Takes Us” (Black metal)
• “Flight 666” (Iron Maiden)
• “Mayor of Sunset Strip” (DJ Rodney Bingenheimer)
• “Hated” (GG Allin)
• “The Beatles Anthology”
• “Imagine John Lennon”
• “God Bless Ozzy Osbourne”
• “This Is It” (Michael Jackson)
• “If I Should Fall From Grace” (Pogues frontman Shane McGowan)
• “Some Kind of Monster” (Metallic)
• “Gimme Shelter” (Rolling Stones)
• “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years”
• “Urgh! A Music War” (Klaus Nomi)
• “Gouge” (The Pixies)
• “Pearl Jam Twenty”
• “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who”
• “Hype” (Seattle grunge)
• “Wesley Willis’s Joyrides”
• “The Girl Done Good” (Amy Winehouse)