Film Reviews

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON

By • Mar 31st, 2006 •

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“Art has always been inspired by beauty because art is the greatest frame of mind to express a certain feeling.”
Daniel Johnston

One of the most wonderful things about being alive is; you learn something new every day. Entire worlds exist out there that you have no clue about one day, and the next, you find yourself entrenched, imbedded and overwhelmed within their confines. Such is the situation you may find yourself in after experiencing THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, one of the most heartfelt, absorbing and amazing documentaries I have ever seen. Since seeing it, I have entered the world of Daniel Johnston and have a feeling I may never truly leave.

I was first drawn to this film by an image…a full-page ad for the movie in The Village Voice. It consisted of a primitively drawn cartoon showing a singer, guitar in hand, with his head sliced open to the elements in a clean circular cut, burst of air shooting out, performing in the center of a crowd filled with similar head-sliced-open look-alikes, all watching his performance, arms raised in concert-goer glee. Little did I know that this startling graphic screaming at me would be the first of many hundreds of like-minded images that would dance before my eyes, mind and heart in wondrous, magical ways I almost forgot were possible.

The question lay before me, begging an answer. “Who in the hell is this Daniel Johnston?” If you are like me, by the time you find out, your perceptions may never be the same about all the ingredients that constitute art, life, love, heaven, hell, right, wrong and…madness.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON tells the true story of a man who is filled with so much joy, so much life, so much talent, so much energy, so much unbridled creative spark and imagination…that he literally and figuratively loses his mind trying to share it all with us. The process and the pain involved in his need to express his feelings are so intense, dangerous and utterly devastating, that his very life and sanity must always be in a state of flux in order for us, his audience, to receive the blessings and gifts of his immense genius.

From a recent Daniel Johnston exhibit in NYC

Sound familiar? Think Van Gogh. Think Plath. Think Morrison. Think Kerouac. Think Cobain. Think tortured artist…and you’re there.

There is no denying that the connections between art, genius and mental illness have always been there…always been fascinating…but have never been fully explained or understood. Let’s face it, try as we might, no one, be they relative, lover, scientist or doctor, can ever be inside these people as they go through the process that leads to their creations. What truly makes those synapses fire is still a mystery. It is the mystery that makes them fascinating. We can now add Daniel Johnston to the list.

When Daniel was a young boy, his folks knew right away that he was “different.” This difference manifested itself in all kinds of artistic endeavors bursting with creativity; like making short Super 8 films, learning, writing and playing music, drawing, and performing. Daniel, like so many great artists, began his journey by absorbing all that he loved (The Beatles, Cartoons, Comic Books) and then finding ways to regurgitate it out in a form he could call his own. His folks actually worried about what Daniel would contribute to society since he seemed more obsessed with his creative projects than he was with school, church, or chores. For some teenagers, this is a normal path that leads to growth in other areas. For Daniel, it was his M.O. 24/7 365. In short, it was his life.

What neither Daniel nor his parents knew was that a horrible genetic tic, bi-polar disorder, would eventually rear its ugly head and cause Daniel, his family, and his friends…to truly suffer for his art.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON is the story of Daniel’s artistic journey through creative joy and madness. Through a combination of current footage, vintage performances, home movies, and dozens of recorded audiotapes from Daniel’s life, director Jeff Feuerzeig brilliantly allows us to become enmeshed in Daniel’s inner and outer world. A world where one is perpetually exposed to the brilliant ramblings of man/child in a state of wonder about it all. I just cannot begin to tell you how struck I was by this film and its subject. The fact that I had never heard of him before makes me wonder about all the other fabulous things out there of which I’m totally clueless.

From a recent Daniel Johnston exhibit in NYC

What is so striking…so beautiful…is the purity of Daniel’s creative soul. As much as he wants to “be famous” he goes about it in a way that under normal circumstances would never have seen the light of a mass audience. For many years, he used to perform his songs by recording them live onto a little cassette recorder (what they call “low-fi” recording) and then he’d hand out his “albums” to just about everyone he met. The melodies, lyrics and exuberant performances on these cassettes are so touching and heartfelt, that you will ache with melancholy and wonder as you listen. Daniel’s songs…from unrequited love ballads to life-affirming statements of pure joy are undeniably works of genius. It is beyond stupefying that these mini-masterpieces are being created by this kid alone in his room or garage with a little cassette recorder, accompanied by primitive chord organ, piano or guitar playing…and all while he is slowly going mad.

In the mid-eighties, by a combination of luck and determination, Daniel found himself in the right place at the right time and received some exposure on MTV’s The Cutting Edge. It was here that he tasted his first bite of success and recognition. It was also here that he began his descent. We see Daniel go from a thin, spunky kid to an overweight (he became HUGE) gray-haired, older-beyond-his-years, medically challenged, bi-polar mess. The contrast is striking.

The film is peppered with testimony from supportive friends (each with fascinating Daniel stories to tell) and his loving parents, brother and sisters, which allows us to get a glimpse of what it must be like to have one such as Daniel in your midst. While his personal history makes for a fascinating story, it is Daniel’s art…comprised of his poetic songs and his drawings that tell their own fascinating story. A story that is both a heartbreaking statement about the sorrows of mental illness and a triumphant celebration of how obstacles, no matter how difficult, can be overcome.

Now in his mid 40s, Daniel Johnston still struggles with his demons, but thanks to better medication, he is able to be out and about much more often, traveling, and performing. He is also actively producing international exhibits where he continues to sell his vibrant and intimate sketches.

He is a beloved cult figure, whose work is recognized for its brilliance by some of the most well-known artists of our time. (Author’s Note: What is truly striking is when you hear his work performed by other artists. I did this by downloading the album THE LATE GREAT DANIEL JOHNSTON off itunes, where you get to hear both Daniel’s original versions of his songs and the covered versions. I highly HIGHLY recommend doing this!) He has recorded over ten full length albums, and his supporters have included Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who was often seen wearing a Daniel Johnston t-shirt, Matt Groening, The Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, noted Minutemen/FIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Beck, The Flaming Lips, and, hopefully do to this film, an ever-growing international audience.

From kid in his room singing alone into a cassette player, to renowned artist whose expressions have earned him worldwide recognition and critical praise, the story of Daniel Johnston is one that will move you in ways you never thought possible and open up entire new avenues of joy and wonder as you discover more and more about him and his unique world.

And to think, a few weeks ago, I’d never even heard of the guy. Isn’t life wonderful?

Authors Note:
THE ART: I recently attended and exhibit of Daniel’s artwork in Chelsea, NY. The photos are from that exhibit.
THE MUSIC: Daniel’s music is readily available for download on itunes. You can also visit two wonderful sites. His official website: www.hihowareyou.com and his fan site www.rejectedunknown.com. I have also done two radio shows dedicated to Daniel and his music. To find out more on how you can receive a copy, please write me at: dendan27@gmail.com


Credits:
Written & Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig
Produced by: Henry S. Rosenthal
Executive Producer: Ted Hope
Original Music: Daniel Johnston
Cinematography: Fortunato Procopio
Editing: Tyler Hubby
Art Direction: Jill McGraw
Theatrical Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Cast:
Daniel Johnston: Himself
Louis Black: Himself
Mabel Johnston: Himself
Bill Johnston: Himself
Jeff Tartakov: Himself

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