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The Devil and Daniel Johnston


I know some folks who look upon documentaries with barely hidden contempt, sometimes judging them to not even qualify as cinema. If all-talking-heads pieces are your only frame of reference, I guess I could see why you would dismiss non-fiction. But that would be depriving yourself of not only some of the greatest stories ever put on film, as reality is often more extraordinary than fiction, but also of some of the best filmmaking. Not every documentary looks like a boring TV report! Errol Morris, Michael Moore, the Maysles brothers and many others have accomplished amazing things with the medium. And as our lives become more and more endlessly documented in home movies and recordings, it becomes possible to extract truths both deeply personal and ultimately universal from that accumulated material. This is perfectly displayed in Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s impressionistic self-portrait, and now in “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”.

Through almost his entire existence, Daniel Johnston has been putting his thoughts and feelings in countless drawings, taped diaries/confessions, Super 8 films and songs. Director Jeff Feuerzeig has dug through all that and come up with a picture at once overwhelmingly dense and crystal clear in its simplicity. Johnston is a genius and a madman, an angel and a demon, a hopeful child and a broken man… A walking contradiction, but a consistent one, he’s hung on to his youthful fascination with Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and his first and only love Laurie. The resulting art is naïve and unpolished, but undeniably sincere and filled with raw emotion.

Johnston’s story is fittingly a series of dramatic ups and downs. A manic depressive, he was raised by a fundamentalist Christian family but always felt attracted to that crossroads where the Devil trades souls for talent and fame. He somehow managed to become a cult figure in the Austin folk scene, appeared on MTV, hung out in New York with members of Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground and even had Kurt Cobain wearing one of his t-shirts for weeks on end and calling him the “greatest living songwriter”. But through it all, he also struggled with nervous breakdowns, bad trips and psychotic episodes, hurting himself and others numerous times and having to be institutionalized and take medication. Johnston never reached the success of Brian Wilson (though some argue that his music equals or surpasses the former Beach Boy’s), but he similarly experienced mental problems that could have ended his career (or his life). It’s a miracle that both of them are doing as well as they are today, even though there’s a sense that they’ll never be whole – maybe they never were in the first place. Who is really, anyway?