Director: Jeff Feuerzieg,
Watched on: DVD,
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a riveting documentary about a man who descends into mental illness at the same time he acquires a cult following for his primitive artistic achievements. His fans embrace his childlike songs sung and strummed on a guitar and recorded to audio cassettes, and trendy Soho art galleries sell his colorful comic book drawings to collectors. While at the same time, his parents and friends have him committed, again and again, for violent assaults and dangerous flights from responsibility.
Daniel Johnston, while still very much alive, but very seriously mentally ill, started his artistic pursuits early in childhood. He was driven to create, making Super8mm films in which he played all the characters and pieced together soundtracks featuring secret audio tapes he made of his mother. He drew, he acted, he wrote songs, he was by all accounts an imaginative and talented kid. When he hit adolescence, he retreated, like many teenage boys, to his bedroom. He grew sullen and a bit angry, but he kept creating art, mainly music, plinked out on a cheap electric piano, with ironic, absurd lyrics, sounding like a primitive cross between Bob Dylan and the Butthole Surfers. He was weird but blessed with self-confidence, and his quirky art endeared him to the alternative music scene in Austin, Texas. He got his own manager, who worked hard at maintaining Johnston’s self-image as an edgy savant. But then Johnston dropped acid, and things took a serious turn down the slippery slope of insanity. He claimed that the Devil talked to him, he became morbidly evangelical. His public appearances dissolved into possessed rants. He endured a vicious round robin of arrests, mental institutions, hospitals, medications, brief bouts with clarity, several brushes with fame. During this time his cult grew, helped by the fact that Kurt Cobain began wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt to every concert, photo shoot, and interview.
Johnston actually claimed that he was on earth to warn people about what happened to him, that the Devil actually made him who he was. After watching this film, you may end up believing him. His art—highly original, devoid of pretense—seems like a shout from under a smothering madness. The director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is Jeff Feuerzieg, a TV commercial director who brings an impeccable sense of design and lighting to this film. The movie is beautifully cinematic, and very sympathetic to its characters, especially Johnston’s mother and father, who are responsible for saving his life. Daniel’s father obviously loves his son, even though Johnston has become an obese, shambling, middle aged slob, sleeping until 1pm, and then arising to do his art. It is refreshing to see a documentary about marginal, less than beautiful people who are beautiful in a more valid way…even Johnston, who looks like he could morph into a monster, is actually a teddy bear, a kid who just wants to draw. And his parents, sadly, tenderly, and with reserves of emotional strength many of us never have to summon, are the heroes of the movie.
Feuerzieg doesn’t delve at all into the actual quality of Johnston’s art, nor does he question the ulterior motives of the cult of personality that surrounds him. But those questions will or should hover in your mind throughout The Devil and Daniel Johnston. This is the rare documentary that allows you the viewer to form your own opinion.