A manic depressive Californian child left his religious parents confused and lost himself in oddball art and song. Sent to live with a brother in Texas, he joined the circus and ended up in Austin, a breeding ground for boho talents. The young man became a local singing songwriting celebrity, published his own music and became admired by the likes of Kurt Cobain and friends with famous bands like Sonic Youth but later mental breakdowns and obsessions with Satan have left him a cultish obscurity. Writer/director Jeff Feuerzeig documents the rise and fall of a curious talent in "The Devil and Daniel Johnston."
While Feuerzeig's film works as a discourse on the links between art and mental illness, his subject remains a head-scratcher. Johnston's drawings ofttimes seem a melding of Harry Crumb and Henry Darger (see "In the Realms of the Unreal") but his musical output is far more questionable. Daniel Johnston is obviously a legend in his own mind, but how did he garner musical legends as his fans? You'll be hard pressed to figure it out with Feuerzeig's film, but his subject is nonetheless fascinating.
Here's a guy who has blessed his future autobiographical director by obsessively tape recording his mother's harangues but hanging onto the tapes. Johnston's organic connection to the media he used to create his art is best exemplified by his unique habit of distributing his albums not on tapes struck from a master, but on tapes on which he'd performed the entire collection anew each time. So much has been saved - artwork, notebooks, photographs, video - that Feuerzeig could have formed his film by making a collage. That he also had access to Johnston's dramatic New York City breakdown also gives his film an immediacy. (It is unfortunate, though, that we only get to hear about how Johnston got released from Bellevue on a clerical error only to show up as that same night's opening act at CBGB's.)
Daniel's story charts the progression of a dehabilitating mental illness from a historical perspective. His parents can now see that their son's loss of confidence in high school signalled the beginning of his downfall. Daniel had two great loves, but lost his first in those years, and when he left the nest for college, he could not maintain a normal life. And his landing in Austin came about in the - no surprise here - weirdest way when he was beaten up for using a carny port-o-john for too long and left behind. There he supported himself with a job at a local MacDonalds which enjoyed its eventual local celeb and got another girl in Kathy Austin, leader of local band Glass Eye. It didn't take her long to realize something was really wrong, however, and we hear from Butthole Surfers' Gibby Hayes (as he's getting his teeth drilled at the dentist's, natch) about how out of control Daniel was tripping on acid at one of their shows. Still, success kept coming for him even as his behavior turned bad. After years of zealous support, Daniel drops his manager Jeff when the record labels circle, but when he signs with Atlantic, things go sour and he only sells 6,300 records.
Johnston's still out there performing to a fan base as loyal as friends like Jeff, who've stuck around as Daniel's fortunes rose and fell. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" isn't the usual music biz cautionary tale, but the tale of a curiosity.
Daniel Johnston was considered by those around him a musical genius. His songs were recorded by such notable performers as Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Beck and many others and was called “the greatest songwriter on Earth” by the late Kurt Cobain. But, demons occupied the songster’s head and he devolved into a state of extreme manic depression. Documaker Jeff Feuerzeig tells the story of Daniels rise of fame and fall into mental illness in “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”
Feuerzeig assembled close friends and family of Daniel and a copious amount of archival footage of the man as he tells of the life of Johnston, a person who migrated to the least skilled work as he wrote, recorded and hand-distributed his music to friends and his growing numbers of fans. But, as he climbed the ladder of music fame his depression also rose and he sank increasingly into his own mind.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is an interesting documentary but one, I must admit, that is geared to the cult fans of the man. I was not familiar with Johnston and his work and, while I learned a lot about the man, his music and his mental problems, I don’t see why he is tagged with the moniker “genius.” But, this isn’t aimed at someone like me but for the fan base that has followed Johnston’s career that has spanned nearly three decades. Such entertainment notables as Matt Groenig (for those few who don’t know, he created “The Simpsons”), David Bowie, Johnny Depp and Kurt Cobain (who wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt to the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards) are among the pantheon of fans.
Watching Daniel’s life unfold is akin to watching a train wreck – it’s a terrible thing but you can’t turn your eyes away. The doc tells about Johnston’s art and music, yes, but its focus is on how his mental illness consumed his world. A failed love affair pushes DJ to smoking pot, a fall into reclusive isolation and a mental breakdown. He became increasingly delusional and violent and was arrested for defacing the Statue of Liberty with hundreds of fish pictures and, at one point, spent five months in a mental hospital. Feuerzeig also has a montage of all of the medications the Daniel was taking to attempt to be “normal.” It is a sad chronicle of a very sick man.
But, the documakers also shows DJ’s increasing popularity and budding fame. His dream to be on MTV is fulfilled. He performs in concert to a standing ovation and, because of Kurt Cobain, his t-shirts become a collector’s item. Major labels vie to record his music, landing him a contract with Atlantic records (which dropped the artist later on, exacerbating his mental problem and lack of self esteem). His career can be considered amazing.
The combination of Daniel’s personal life and professional career makes for interesting viewing for the first 80 minutes. But, the film is 110 minutes long, making the last half hour seem interminable. It has a positive final note, though, as we see Johnston a new, controlled person making a go at living a normal life. I’m happy for the man even if I don’t get his perceived genius. Some judicious editing would have helped “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” I give it a C+.
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