Documentaries should always be approached with a grain of salt already in hand. While they always purport to tell ‘the truth’ about their subjects, they invariably choose a side and rely on generous helpings of embellishment to make their point. The crazy genius has always been an easy target for such films, as a quick sampling a biopics show, since mental problems serve as a convenient maudlin device to melt the heart of the audience with minimal effort. The latest such film is “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”
The movie opens with the titular figure being introduced at a concert in Sliced Bread, USA (aka Austin , Texas ) as “the greatest singer-songwriter alive today.” One has to regard such a claim with a bit of bemusement, especially since Daniel Johnston is a relative unknown outside the underground/indie rock scene. Johnston is a songwriter and artist who came into brief notoriety in the late 80’s and early ’90s for his handmade underground folk-rock music and obtuse artwork, and became legendary for his struggles with manic depression and other mental problems.
The film chronicles Johnston ‘s life through his own home movies and tapes as well as interviews with friends and music industry figures who dealt with him. A wildly creative child, Johnston grew up in a strictly Catholic household in West Virginia . He spent most of his formative years in his parent’s basement with an electronic organ, cassette recorder and a video camera churning out reams of disturbing drawings and off the cuff songs. Unfortunately, his seemingly never ending stream of creativity manifested itself as manic depression about the time he started college. Unable to function on his own, he bounced around between his parents and siblings till an extraordinary set of circumstances involving a carnival and a port-a-potty led him to Austin .
Based in this boomtown of folk rock, garage bands and self-styled musicians, Johnston managed to get his music distributed (often re-recording entire albums overnight due to a lack of tape dubbing facilities), get on MTV and become friends with the likes of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Half Japanese, all while working at the local McDonalds. His artwork even got a boost when Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt featuring one of his drawings for several months non-stop. In fact, Johnston ‘s music is still being distributed on the web by his ex-manager, whom Johnston fired by clubbing on the head three times with a lead pipe.
Johnston’s exploits are almost too amazing to be real, but this is tempered by the fact that Johnston himself is so disturbed that he’s hardly aware of what he’s accomplished and who he’s rubbed elbows with over the years. The effect that this gradual mental collapse had on Johnston and the people around him is sad to watch. He became violently obsessed with the devil and was constantly on and off his meds. This behavior led to his siblings running him off, an old lady throwing herself out of a window and, after a concert in NYC where he had not been taking his medication, he crashed his father’s plane, nearly killing them both.
The film’s treatment of this part of Johnston ‘s life is fairly leading. The film portrays Johnston ‘s parents as ‘fundamentalists’ who tried to curb his creativity and even suggests that they may have contributed to his mental collapse. The problem with this is that his parents are the only ones who actually cared for Daniel Johnston, the man, rather than Daniel Johnston, the musician and artist.
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” shows us an extraordinary life of inspired creativity and passion caged by mental problems and drugs (both prescription and illicit). The problem is, unless you are a fan of this type of ‘out there’ music (it’s not quite coherent enough to qualify as avant garde), you don’t really connect with the subject.
This brings us back to the point I made at the beginning regarding documentaries. The film spends its running time trying to garner sympathy for Johnston by portraying him as a cruelly curtailed cornerstone of the music industry, but unless you’re part of his pre-existing fanbase, there’s little to get excited about. I personally don’t see the appeal of Johnston ‘s music and the fact that a two-bit drug-addled hack like Kurt Cobain proclaims him the “greatest living songwriter” further devalues his stock. In the end, what we have is an engaging portrait of an embattled soul who obliviously affected the lives of a great number of people, but the film never elevates Johnston above a mere curiosity that will soon drift back into obscurity with the closing credits.
Jeff Feuerzeig (director) / Jeff Feuerzeig (screenplay)
CAST: Louis Black …. Himself
Bill Johnston …. Himself
Daniel Johnston …. Himself
Mabel Johnston …. Herself
Jeff Tartakov …. Himself