The Devil and Daniel Johnston
2005Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Cast: Daniel Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Bill Johnston, Louis Black
ne of the most iconic photographic images of the nineties features a doomed Kurt Cobain staring wistfully into the camera lens; cardigan drooped around his lean frame, a knowing smile on his lips. He is wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt.
If genius spelled death for Cobain, it spelled madness for Johnston, a performer with remarkably similar talents to the Nirvana front man. Jeff Feuerzeig’s alarming documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, follows the misfortunes of the manic depressive singer/songwriter/artist, who is only now finding some modicum of fame with every cool singer in the phone book claiming his work as an influence. Where were they when he needed them? Only Sonic Youth and The Butthole Surfers recognized him for the Mozart he was at the time, and went to extraordinary lengths to aid and protect him. Fortunately, all is not lost. With obvious comparisons to Peter Sellers, Johnston compiled a huge archive of home movie footage over the years, writing and performing multiple characters, composing mini screenplays as a teenager that could make Shane Black cower back into his hole in the ground.
For the uninitiated, which I freely confess to being, Daniel Johnston could neither sing nor play an instrument; or at least when he did, the resulting sound was something truly unidentifiable. A disquieting, curious, and ultimately fascinating presence, his discordant voice and unique guitar work succeeds in getting under the skin of even the most cynical music critic. As Feuerzeig’s documentary progresses, it is difficult not to fall under the Johnston spell and feel ashamed you have not heard of him before. Those who have must be saluted.
As an ungainly teenager fascinated by The Beatles, Johnston’s musical talents were, at best, neglected by his family, and most definitely discouraged as being a one-way trip down the path to Palookaville. His brief brush with mainstream fame was inevitable, though, as the Austin music scene became hip and MTV discovered the bizarre young musician handing out copies of his tapes in the McDonalds where he worked. Amazingly, he had no way of dubbing the tapes, so he recorded each copy of his album individually. Character traits such as these are endearingly portrayed in the film, leaving the viewer with a contented feeling in the pit of the stomach. Johnston was the person so many wished they could be—fearless, entertaining and talented in the most unusual way.
With a major record label taking interest, the resultant pressures of recording took their toll on the ill-prepared, fragile young man. His descent into madness was swift and brutal. Johnston became fervently religious, seeing the devil on every street corner, in every stranger’s face. The subsequent years in the wilderness could not be avoided. Medications, institutions, bizarre appearances, and the eventual acceptance back into the bosom of his sad, unnerved family to play out a life that should not have been, that could have been so much more, seems like a familiar rock premise-turned-tragedy. In Johnston’s case, however, is something uniquely painful in all of this: his survival.
Feuerzeig became close friends with Johnston during the shooting of this film, which is no surprise, as it is hard to imagine anyone not wanting to know and befriend this man. Johnston represents our hopes of transcending mediocrity, the concern of not knowing what to do with success when you have it, and the deep-rooted fear in the psyche that none of us are ever that far from the edge of the abyss. His life and story are in many ways more important to us than that of Cobain, simply because he lived through what Kurt could not and oh my, oh my...
The Devil and Daniel Johnston won the Director’s Award at Sundance a year ago, and is finally being released theatrically in the US on March 31st, following a merry dance on the festival circuit worldwide. With the documentary genre enjoying an unprecedented stint of popularity, Feuerzeig’s film will surely triumph and provide some sort of validation for a man too long neglected.