There are artists who are so far under the radar that it takes years or even decades to truly appreciate what they contributed to different mediums. On the music side, the recluse Jandek has been a cult hero to many but only earned his just desserts the last few years. As well, Daniel Johnston’s background has been vividly captured in the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Indeed, there are few who would even know to this day who Gary Wilson is. Wilson created a seminal album back in the ‘70s that eventually reached the ears of Beck who name-dropped Wilson in one of his songs. Wilson’s album You Think You Really Know Me was rarely recognized, matching the largely anonymous way in which he lived. After moving from his hometown of Endicott, New York to California, Wilson basically dropped out of music circles, still playing in different bands but not garnering anyone’s attention.
Hence, director Michael Wolk’s documentary is an interesting look at how Wilson began, what it was like when he did have a bit of attention, and what the heck happened to him. Wolk’s style isn’t all that unusual, starting by talking to friends and colleagues of Wilson’s who tell stories of the arty, ahead-of-his-time performer who took to throwing paint on his clothes and being doused with flour onstage, resulting in a collision of sound and performance art.
Yet for all of the recollections, few from Wilson’s hometown knew much about his modest success, nor knew where he had gone. Two members of the small label, Motel Records, go in search of Wilson with the idea of re-releasing You Think You Really Know Me. They find him working at a porn shop, rather resembling the real life version of Jeff Albertson, known as the “Comic Book Guy” on The Simpsons.
The documentary presents Wilson as a seminal musical genius, and just a guy making a living playing the odd wedding gig or banquet, or drawing a paycheck by standing behind a counter with sex toys for sale. Old video footage of live performances as well as concept videos show the younger singer and his band occasionally making out with mannequins or generally being bizarre.
Like most performers who are out of the loop and then suddenly put back in the spotlight, Wilson ends up returning to his hometown and hooking up with his former band mates to do a string of shows in support of the re-release. Perhaps the best portions of the documentary are in the latter half, with the singer returning to his childhood home and plucking the stand-up bass his father used to play.
If there is one scene which sums up how Wilson viewed his career, it’s probably when he’s sifting through old tattered pages of lyrics he wrote, still in the same spot he left them in his parent’s basement all those years ago. Wolk doesn’t go over-the-top to heap praise on Wilson or get brief cameos from people to do the same, but generally his rather laidback approach enables this sweet and interesting story to unfold fairly naturally.
At the end of the film, the viewer realizes they know a little bit more of Gary Wilson, but even then he remains an enigma.