It’s fitting that Clive Barker, the out writer and director of horror and fantasy fare like Hellraiser, bankrolled JoJo Baby, a new documentary about the eponymous Chicago-based dollmaker, visual artist and clubkid that screens Wednesday 30 as part of the Cinema Q series at the Chicago Cultural Center. After all, JoJo, who spends much of his life holed up alone in an overstuffed Wicker Park studio, declares himself “the walking dead.”
According to JoJo filmmakers Mark Danforth and Dana Buning, Barker (also a visual artist) met JoJo while he was visiting Chicago with an exhibition of his artwork. Barker fan JoJo persuaded the writer to check out his studio in the Flatiron Arts Building in Wicker Park. Barker was impressed. “Clive was absolutely blown away,” says Danforth, who was interning at the time at Barker’s production company Seraphim Films. “He came back and said there was this remarkable artist that no one is really talking about other than in Chicago.” Soon Danforth was at JoJo’s doorstep with co-filmmaker Buning (a TV producer who also happens to be Danforth’s ex–step aunt) and a camera crew in tow.
The resulting 80-minute documentary is a slow, brooding and ultimately mesmerizing film that paints a compelling portrait of one of Chicago’s most unusual working artists. Key questions about JoJo’s life, including his date of birth, income and birth name, are left unanswered. Insight is instead offered by JoJo himself (the occasional talking head, including brother Jay Jay and fellow clubkid Sal-E, helps illuminate). “We all agreed almost instantly upon meeting JoJo, we did not want to create a feeling,” Danforth says. “We wanted it to be 100 percent his world. We really just set out to be flies on the wall and capture his gallery.”
As the camera meanders and zigzags its way through JoJo’s cramped studio, the artist explains his many oil paintings, installations, plaster cocks and, most strikingly, dozens of bendable dolls made in the likeness of icons like Jesus and Marilyn Monroe, whose bodies cantilever frighteningly out toward onlookers.
Meanwhile, JoJo, an ongoing fixture in the queer nightlife scene including Berlin Nightclub and the legendary Boom Boom Room at Green Dolphin Street, reveals himself to be a captivating if melancholy character (“I’m not a happy person,” he says at one point) with an almost Miss Havisham–like fixation on past events. JoJo recalls his mentor, Greer Lankton, a trans-identified artist who worked for Jim Henson and died of a drug overdose in her thirties, and the untimely death of JoJo’s mother from a spider bite that ultimately led to fatal choking. He talks candidly about living with HIV, beating testicular cancer, his Roman Catholic upbringing and estrangement from a homophobic father. Says Buning, “We were seeking to lift the veil of an artist’s process, but what we got was so much more personal. It wasn’t what I was expecting.”
But selling the film has proven a challenge. Despite a positive and sold-out screening at Reeling, other festivals haven’t yet warmed to it. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of a niche film,” Danforth says. Buning agrees: “The pacing and the subject matter are maybe not for everyone, and we’re discovering that now as we apply to festivals.” Chicago audiences will get a second shot this Wednesday. Anyone who knows JoJo only through his costumed appearances around town should check the film out. “It wasn’t until we had spent a couple of days with him that I really started to get an idea of what JoJo is about,” Buning says. “I can’t say my impression of him changed; it just grew from a question mark into a smile.”
JoJo Baby screens Wednesday 30 as part of Cinema Q.