The Devil and Daniel Johnston
2006, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig.
REVIEWED By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., May 5, 2006
At various points in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the once and forever Austin musical phenomenon is compared – and in some cases pronounced superior – to Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson. The now 45-year-old, Waller, Texas-dwelling phenomenon is also a gifted and galleried illustrator and painter, so add Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray to the list. And damned if by the first of three endnotes to this keenly phantasmagoric music documentary naming Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Beck, and Wilco among acts who’ve covered Johnston's off-kilter pop (don’t forget TV on the Radio, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie), you aren’t snorting with a little less certainty. Not only does the literal and figurative institutionalization of the singer-songwriter unravel like a less severe Tennessee Williams gothic, to paraphrase one of the film’s chorus of interviewees, director Feuerzeig and his team of visualists cocoon it within a bedeviling sonic and scenic backdrop. (Full disclosure: Included among the many Austin observers interviewed in the film are Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, former music columnist Ken Lieck, and occasional contributor Kathy McCarty.)
The locations, sound design, and even the simplest mattes – pictures, postcards, a huge, heart-shaped pile of cassettes – complement the story like red on black. Super-8 slapstick by the young Johnston, who according to his family lived only “to make art and be John Lennon,” is accompanied by clacking spools of a film projector and his own spare piano, lending the first part of Daniel Johnston the aura of a 1920s silent. The black-and-white end-credit roll with a present-day Johnston fluttering soundlessly in his Wal-Mart-issue Casper the Friendly Ghost costume borders on the supernatural. The all-too-brief animation of his surreal drawings proves no less effective. The most inspired instance of dramatic detailing allows Johnston to tell his own tale through 20 years of taped diaries, letters, and ramblings. Hearing the subject read the clinical definition of "manic depression" elicits humor and pathos: “There you have it, I’m a manic depressive with grand illusions.”
That Johnston’s wavering mental health feeds the “All great artists are crazy” bonfire – a cheeky line drawn here from Byron to Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Path, and finally DJ – in no way minimizes the Everyman impact of Feuerzeig’s independent confirmation. For every idyllic childhood intruded upon by society’s unbending belief in “a productive life,” God only knows how many fragile psyches buckle and break. At the end of the day, Johnston’s childlike stream of unrequited love landed him on MTV, Atlantic Records, and now a feature-length theatrical recounting of his life.
Take that, Satan.
(See "Visions Holy and Damned, Innocent and Experienced," May 5, 2005, for Louis Black's feature on Johnston.)