Upcoming documentary captures the persevering spirit of Libertyville’s Ike Reilly
Rocker Ike Reilly could be a character in one of his own songs — the gritty, persistent working man’s poet who can’t seem to catch his big break.
The Libertyville bard, storyteller and punk rocker is the subject of “Don’t Turn Your Back on Friday Night,” an upcoming documentary of his musical career, band and family life by co-directors Mike Schmiedeler and Michael O’Brien and executive producer (and former Libertyville resident) Tom Morello.
Featuring footage filmed during his early days playing around Chicago, the famed New York City rock club CBGB and various tours across the country, the film steps into Reilly’s more than 40 years on stage.
But the story starts in Libertyville. Early in the film, Reilly takes the crew to Ascension Cemetery on the outskirts of town where, in talking about one of his first jobs as a gravedigger, he relates how planting the headstone for a late childhood friend and the empathy of a co-worker led to the creation of his song “Put A Little Love in It.”
“That’s the best way to explain Ike Reilly to people,” David Lowery, from rock band Cracker, says in the film. “He wrote this amazing pop song about digging a grave.”
Peppered throughout the documentary, Reilly tells the stories behind the tales in some of his songs, relating them to both real life and the fictional characters who spark his imagination. Viewers get a glimpse of the tour bus high jinks, the partying, the behind-the-scenes banter between him and his Ike Reilly Assassination bandmates — Pete Cimbalo, Dave Cottini, Phil Karnats, Adam Krier, Tommy O’Donnell and Ed Tinley — and his love for his family.
“He’s a real artist, in some ways nurtured by and in some ways trapped in the town that he lives in. And Libertyville is both fertile soil for those authentic stories and it’s a cage,” longtime friend Morello weighs in. ” … But communities like that forge rebels.”
Family friend and former classmate Father Matt Foley also appears in interviews throughout, as well as actor David Pasquesi, late Chicago radio icon Lin Brehmer, and a number of other directors, critics and performers. Some praise his music, some are baffled by his lack of commercial success, but most add to the pool of fascinating tales about the man.
The film showcases his upbringing in the northern suburb of Chicago, connecting dots where he grew up, went to school and got married. He shares some history, but, as those familiar with his music are aware, he doesn’t often sugarcoat it.
“There’s a memory and a ghost around every corner,” he says. “Now I mythologize the things that used to make me wanna suck on a shotgun.”
Reilly, long an activist and champion for the little guy, isn’t one to veer from touchy conversations, and his music is often charged with gruff and outspoken, but informed, takes on politics, religion and the state of humanity.
Much like Reilly himself, the feature-length documentary’s strength is in its authenticity, even when telling the truth isn’t pretty. It touches on the death of his friend actor Chris Farley and addresses his struggles with alcoholism and financial difficulties and the raw repercussions of both on the people he loves.
“All the songs we do are either lies or apologies,” he says onstage in the film, and in context it’s a nod of respect to his family.
The film goes to great lengths to honor Reilly’s supportive wife, Kara Dean, and showcase their children — Hannah, Shane, Kevin and Mickey — especially once his boys join the family band.
“I love his family. He’s this kind of person who should not exist. He is able to definitely live in worlds that most people can’t singularly live in. His family is great and amazing. And yet, he’s also incredibly talented and gifted in the music world and respected by musicians,” said Schmiedeler, who produced the documentary. He said it took nearly six months back in 2019 to convince Reilly to give them the green light on it. “I feel like people who’ve made personal sacrifices to achieve that level of commercial success do so probably to personal detriment, but his family is like a secret weapon.”
Reilly’s relationship with his family is never more clear than in the scenes about his popular lockdown-era livestreams — “Ike Reilly Family Quarantine Hour” — and when his boys join him on tour. At one big tour stop, his youngest son Mickey steps up to the mic to sing part of a verse in “Trick of the Light,” clearly apprehensive about messing up on stage. But by the third verse, he’s relishing the cheers, grinning and bouncing to the beat.
Perhaps that’s a metaphor for Reilly’s career. As people speculate throughout the documentary, he should be more successful, but maybe he’s hard to market since he’s not pinned to one genre. But Morello calls him “An artist the world deserves to hear.” And once listeners apprehensive about giving it a try do, they just might join that growing and rabid fan base shown in the movie.
But Reilly points out in discussing the film that for him, family, camaraderie and art trump commercial success.
“It’s the joy of music, and the fulfillment it brings is kind of its own currency,” he said. “Granted, I’d love to not have financial worries, but there’s nothing like playing music, and when you love your band, and then your family’s involved, it’s a pretty great thing.”
A private screening of “Don’t Turn Your Back on Friday Night” is in the works as the crew is working on distribution deals and entries into film festivals. In the meantime, fans can watch dontturnyourbackonfridaynight.com for upcoming details and a release date coming later this year.