In the March 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine, reporter Dan Simmons wrote a feature on Joe Reed. Eleven months later, that article has led to a flurry of other stories and videos featuring Reed, a now-34-year-old Chicago-native who lost all four of his limbs to meningitis as a toddler and is raising his family on the Northwest Side.
Those stories landed in the Google searches of Damien Blue, a Madison-born filmmaker working in Milwaukee. He’s made original short films videos for the likes of local rappers WebsterX and IshDARR, as well as singer-songwriter Rahn Harper.
Blue was contracted by Ben Wagner, a blond-haired Earthen folk-guitarist who released his debut album Midwestern Comfort in June 2018. Wagner grew up in West Allis and New Berlin, first picked up a guitar during high school and got good at it by playing at weekly masses during four years at Marquette University. Over the last few months, he’s been going back and forth between Nashville and Milwaukee, writing music and planning a second album.
“Take My Time” is the lead track on Midwestern Comfort, and Wagner felt it needed a video that was as uplifting as he felt writing it. It premiered this month.
That’s where Reed came in…
How the song and video came together
Wagner: I remember just driving myself crazy [during college], finding out what I wanted to do with my life. I was overly anxious in all those conversations. I ended up talking myself down and being like: “You know what, Ben, it’s going to be fine. Just relax and enjoy yourself and take opportunities as they come.”
Blue: He showed me the song, and we didn’t really know what we wanted to do yet. Our options were still out on the table.
Wagner: I talked about it not just being a typical first music video. And we went through every idea you could imagine. It went through a big dance thing like you would see in 500 Days of Summer. We went through if it was going to be a video with just me in it, or a story of two brothers sneaking out in the morning … We talked through a gamut of things.
Blue: We thought the song was pretty uplifting, and that the tone (of the video) should match the tone of the song.
Wagner: Damien really was the right guy for this. We never would settle on an okay idea. A bunch of those ideas were good and we could’ve settled on them, but we kept asking the question and having discussions about how we could make this a meaningful thing and a piece of art.[Damien] was like, “I just saw this news story of this guy named Joe Reed in Milwaukee.” … He sent me this little video clip of Joe, and I had an emotional reaction when I saw him. I was like: This guy gets life. I just want to be around him. And then I read the article [Milwaukee Magazine] wrote on Joe Reed and all of my emotions matched up.
Making the vid
Wagner: When we found out he could dance, it became a huge thing. We were like, “He can dance!?”
Blue: For me, [the music video] didn’t have to be about the fact that he has no limbs. We almost tried to steer away from it a little bit at times. It did not have to be about that. It can be about a celebration of life and family.
Wagner: Joe is exactly how you would expect from reading the article. He’s a great, humble, kind guy. He gives off this optimism. His laugh is — it’s something you want to be around.
Blue: I feel like it was the perfect project. I guess that’s the ultimate goal that we’re trying to achieve as directors — how to impact an audience … I feel like I made a really good friend with that whole family, and that makes me happy.
When sketching out the video, Blue had planned on spending the day with Reed and his family. He wasn’t planning on ending up at Butler Skateland. But after dropping Reed’s kids off at the bus stop, Reed decided to arrange a detour at his dad’s house.
In the years since they reunited, Reed hadn’t been able to join his dad and brother at the roller rink.
“That scene at the beginning of the video, where Joe is taking his kids to the bus stop. It is just as it unravels in the video,” Blue says. “I was still rolling on the camera and he called his dad and said ‘Come on down.’ All of that coverage is real. That’s just as it happened.
“[The video] allowed Joe to do something he hasn’t done before, which is going to see his dad skate. It was an opportunity for us to film it and split up the screen time between Joe and someone else,” Blue continues. “It was cool to include his family and create variety, but it really happened impromptu. That was not on paper, and it ended up working out really well.”