Worth A Look: 9.52%
Just Average: 61.9%
Pretty Crappy: 14.29%
2 reviews, 9 user ratings
|Devil and Daniel Johnston, The
Somewhere within me ticks a metronome that wants to keep time with Daniel Johnston. That metronome is mostly very quiet. But at some point between the airbrushed, pseudo-pornographic magazine glamour shots of fad-artists like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and Kelly Clarkson (ridiculous successes all three) and the odiously filtered, thinner-than-nitrogen vocals which spew like so much stereophonic hot-air from any and all of their platinum-awarded exercises in vapidity, I desperately want the shameless tick-tock of the bizarre Daniel Johnston to crescendo into a much needed popular-music alternative. Let me emphasize that word “desperately”. Unfortunately, try as I might to love his strange folk tunes, the low-fi recordings produced by Johnston from the bowels of his parents' basement on a $59 dollar Sanyo boom-box didn’t compel me to campaign vigorously for the resurrection of the cassette player (now surely on music’s short-list of technologically endangered species, just a few million iPods away from being as dead as the 8-track dodo) so that I could circulate copies of Johnston’s debut tape “Hi, How Are You” to every Virgin/HMV/A&B warehouse in the megamusicstore tessellation of North America. In other words, I wasn’t compelled to do that which director Dan Feuerzeig thinks we should all be doing: loving Daniel Johnston.Before seeing the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston I hadn’t heard any of Mr. Johnston’s tunes nor seen any of his artwork, and so was hardly in the position of determining whether or not the man is a genius. Now, having absorbed the story of Johnston’s rather strange life and heard and seen a copious flow of his artistic output, I’m pretty sure that he isn’t. Mr. Feuerzeig wants us to think otherwise, however, and he may know better. He strains to convince us that because Johnston is relatively unknown (if you knew of him before you read this, seek your Renaissance-man application) that he is also an undiscovered genius. This is a theory probably every guitar-strumming hack with a stack of squeaky, slowly-decaying tape recordings piled in his still-living-with-his-parents bedroom has formulated in his grandeur-deluded mind. The question Mr. Feuerzeig seeks to answer (in the affirmative, from his point of view) is: Is Daniel Johnston anything more than a guitar-strumming hack?
"The fine line between folk artist and freak show."
Whether he is or not is probably a subjective consideration, but in his defense Johnston does possess an enviable trait that many artists in our age of cover-tunes (and lobotomized drones who love cover-tunes) seem to lack and crave: passion. Less unusual for a musician, Johnston focuses a large amount of his passion solely on himself. One might accuse him of being a self-centered egoist, but one could just as accurately view his self-absorption as going hand in hand with his peculiarly original form of artistry.
The now 43 year-old Johnston, a native of West Virginia now living in Waller, Texas, is a somewhat manic depressive phantom of his former, energetic self. Always eccentric even as a child, the appeal of Johnston has always been the brash and brazen confidence he affords his (rather suspect) musical ability as well as the uncomplicated lyrics and simplistic chord structures of his folk tunes. His uniqueness has made the otherwise ordinary man somewhat of a folk hero – though, I suppose, not enough of one to have spread the underground messages of his intense love for an obscure girl named Laurie, a famous fellow named Jesus, and a friendly ghost named Casper to the ears I try to keep open here in Vancouver.
Nevertheless, Johnston’s songs have been covered by such now-mainstream groups as Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth, and the reclusive fellow reached his peak of notoriety when the late Kirk Cobain wore a T-shirt sporting Johnston’s hand-drawn cover art for his debut recording “Hi, How Are You” at concerts and on MTV interviews. Despite this recognition of “genius” from other artists, Johnston’s prolific creativity has come – as all creativity does – at a price. In the last two decades Johnston has been in and out of mental institutions and on and off a flurry of sometimes-harmful medications for his bipolar disorder. This aspect of Daniel’s life is given just as much screen-time as Feuerzeig affords the man’s music, and so the pressing question becomes: How much has the bipolarity fed the music and vice versa. It is an interesting question, but not for two hours. Too many home videos meant to highlight Johnston’s fundamentalist Christian upbringing and childish precociousness only work to clutter the film’s focus – a focus never totally clear.
The arc of Johnston’s life is interesting (especially the parts detailing his gradual devolution into a ranting fundamentalist Christian – the impetus for the “Devil” part of the title) but not nearly as momentous as Feuerzeig makes it out to be. Hence, the director is forced to set up some ludicrous arguments in hopes of convincing us skeptics (or ignoramuses?) that Johnston is a genius because he is an occasionally-hospitalized outsider. Casually throwing out the names of virtually universally-accepted geniuses like Anonin Artuad, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf may be interesting as a way of highlighting the occasionally tissue-paper-thin line that distinguishes genius from madness, but it by no means makes a case for Johnston’s being a genius himself. If one were to lay down Artaud’s numerous experimental plays and theoretical texts on theatre beside the comic-book sketches and puerile recordings of Johnston, one might see how absurd it is to make such an analogy. Tossing in the works of Van Gogh, Plath and Woolf would only serve to prove the same absurdity – with cataclysmic force.
Nevertheless, I would argue it is better for us to know of Johnston than it is not to know of him. However, this doesn’t excuse longtime friend and manager Jeff Tartakov’s claims that Johnston’s low-fi recordings are as important as the “basement tapes” of Bob Dylan or the early work of Robert Johnson. Those are statements so boldly ludicrous that they only serve to show a weakness of Mr. Feuerzeig’s as a filmmaker that he allowed them to stay in the final cut. Moments like this make Feuerzeig's overlong and occasionally outrageous documentary only serviceable as simple illumination, not as a serious piece of work – or perhaps only as a fan for the embers of alternative musicians like Johnston.
Music is often referred to as a universal language, and, in a sense, that is a true statement. But Daniel Johnston’s is a very personal, intimate, isolated form of music, and one would have to search long and hard to find somebody (other than Tartakov or Feuerzeig) who would ever deem it universal. But to me, that’s a good thing. Too many artists these days strive towards universality (in terms of “alikeness”) and end up stripping away whatever fingerprint their music might have been able to impress upon the art form. Just how much of a musical impression Daniel Johnston will end up leaving is up to history to decide, but no one will be able to say the fingerprint was made by anyone but him.So, even though I didn’t end up embracing the music of the man with the less-in-tune-than-Neil-Young voice, I suspect there may be some people out there willing to offer Johnston their more sympathetic ears. Ideally, this documentary will find a few of them.
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originally posted: 04/28/06 05:53:16
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