Devil and Daniel Johnston, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/14/06 00:09:58

"Nice for fans of Johnston--kind of a chore for everyone else"
3 stars (Just Average)

Daniel Johnston, for those of you unfamiliar with him (presumably the majority of you), is a singer-songwriter who has attracted a small-but-devoted cult through a series of self-produced, low-fi recordings highlighting his quirky lyrical approach and his more questionable attempts at singing and guitar-playing. He has also attracted not a small amount of notoriety because of his pronounced longtime struggle with manic-depression, which has manifested itself over the years in ways ranging from the benign to the dangerous. Johnston’s method of trying to deal with his affliction has been to channel his obsessions and illness into his art and the new documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” takes a look at the man and his work with results that will surely please fans while leaving outsiders with more questions than answers.

Directed by avowed Johnston fanatic Jeff Feuerzeig, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” delves into his past and looks on with wonder as he is able to transform his personal quirks and demons (many of which seem to have been inspired by a girl from long ago who didn’t go out with him) into art despite considerable obstacles. Although we see footage of Johnston today going about his life, the vast majority of the film looks at his life through his art–Johnston seems to have recorded and saved virtually everything from his youth and the film makes extensive use of home movies, amateur-shot performance footage and, most intriguing of all, numerous audio tapes in which he talks about himself in detail. This material paints a fascinating portrait of a man who is clearly in turmoil and some of it is so odd that it is almost hard to believe that we are seeing it. For example, he disappears for a few days while in New York and the members of the post-punk group Sonic Youth were among those looking for him–they inexplicably had a camera running and we see the footage in which they happen to find him on the street.

The problem with the film is that Feuerzeig is such a devoted fan that he simply takes it for granted that Johnston is a genius and that every man, woman and child who is exposed to his music will instantly recognize him as such–at one point, he makes a blanket statement that Johnston is the equal of no less a figure than Brian Wilson, another musician who has struggled for decades with his own mental illness and personal demons. That is a bold statement to make–especially when you consider the fact that, unlike Wilson, Johnston makes the kind of music that many listeners will find simply unendurable (even I found it a little much after a while and I have a music collection that includes both The Shaggs and Lou Reed’s infamous white-noise exploration “Metal Machine Music”)–and it requires some kind of back-up explanation in order to make that case but no such thing is to be found here. (The closest such thing is a photo showing Kurt Cobain wearing a Johnston T-shirt.) More disturbing is the fact that Feuerzeig ignores the question of whether Johnston is being exploited, consciously or not, by either those doing business with him or those who flock to his concerts (where you have to assume that a few of them are there hoping to have a front-row seat to another of his legendary freak-outs). Perhaps Feuerzeig left out these elements because he didn’t want them to take away from his focus or he thought they would interfere with his notion of Johnston as a pure genius beloved by all–whatever the reason, the avoidance of such touchy issues is likely to leave a lot of people unsatisfied.

If you are a fan of Daniel Johnston and want to see an unquestioning hagiography that will allow you to renew your hipster cred, you will most likely enjoy the feature-length love letter that is “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” If, on the other hand, you want to see a film that shows how an artist process his inner traumas into his work while taking time to illustrate what makes the work so unique and distinctive, you are advised to save your money and wait for the new special edition DVD of Terry Zwigoff’s astonishing documentary “Crumb” when it comes out in a couple of weeks.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.