There are certain topics or certain individuals that cry out to serve as the subject
for a feature documentary, and in the last several years, some of the best movies
have been the "nonfiction" ones. Cult singer and songwriter Daniel Johnston seems
tailor-made for a movie about his life and director Jeff Feuerzeig has proven a worthy
selection to handle the chore. The result, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, is
a fine move about one man's desire for celebrity and success, his struggles with
mental illness, and the toll both have taken on his friends and family.
Feuerzeig was lucky enough to be given a trove of archival material by
Johnston, who appears to be something of a pack rat. There are home movies from
the mid-1960s, videos from the 80s and audiotape diaries and letters that span
several decades. Johnston's parents -- who continue to care for him -- as well as
his siblings contribute their reminiscences and comments. His friends and fans also
weigh in (although I could have done without the interview with Butthole Surfers
leadman Gibby Haynes while he was at the dentist. That's just my thing -- dentists.
Haynes was getting a filling while he was being interviewed and the drill somehow
always reminds me of MARATHON MAN, and I literally had to avert my eyes.)
Johnston certainly is a character -- a person with a bipolar disorder. When
he was on medication, he was able to function more or less, but if he went off
his drugs -- and there were many instances where he did -- he became difficult.
Johnston would claim that the devil or demons were after him.
Feuerzeig traces Johnston's life from his early youth in West Virginia in a rather
conservative Christian family -- he was the rebel, determined to be "famous" and
he would create short films, dictate his thoughts on cassette, write and record songs,
and create fascinating art work. Eventually he did what many kids only dream of --
ran away from home and joined a travelling carnival. Eventually he ended up in
Texas, where he crashed with one or other of his siblings and fell into the burgeoning
Austin music scene of the mid-1980s. Johnston even managed to achieve one of
his goals -- appearing live on MTV. At this point, he would hand out homemade
tapes of his songs and albums, and he often had to record them for individuals as
he lacked the dubbing equipment to mass produce his work. Sadly, his mental illness
sabotaged his career.
I honestly cannot say that I am a fan of Johnston's music -- some have tried
to invoke comparisons with the youthful Bob Dylan -- but this documentary is
nothing if not engrossing and well-made. Feuerzeig makes terrific use of all the
various archival material at his disposal and despite the presence of family and
friends (and the artist's cooperation), THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON
doesn't play as a hagiography or a whitewash. Instead, it's a rich character
study of a tormented man who may or may not be a genius.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content,
and language including a sexual reference
Running time: 110 min.
Viewed at Magno Review Two
|The Devil and Daniel Johnston
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.