Devil and Daniel Johnston: Docu of Cult Musician as Mad Artist

Jeff Feuerzeigs powerful docu about cult musician Daniel Johnston as a “mad” artist won Best Director at the 2005 Sundance Festival.
The new DVD edition includes deleted scenes; commentary from director Feuerzeig and producer Henry Rosenthal; Daniel’s audio diaries; Daniel and Laurie reunion; Legendary WFMU Broadcast, the Sundance world premiere; and collection of three short films by Daniel.

Daniel Johnston, an experimental artist who suffers from manic depression, recognizes that his illness can not only inspire his art but also act as a powerful selling point.

Many biographies have portrayed the mad artist as a tragic hero; yet without the madness there would be no art and no story to tell. Jeff Feuerzeigs documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, takes a different approach to this subject by showing that the true victim is not so much the artist himself but the friends and family members who have to carry the burden of his destruction so that he can continue to produce art.

As a teenager in West Virginia, Johnston is committed to his delusions of grandeur, holing up in his room for hours to produce biographical comic strips, drawings of eyeballs, and movies inspired by no one except himself. This doesnt go over well with his religious parents, who expect him to be a profitable servant to God. Johnston responds to his mothers disapproval by donning a wig for his home video and playing her as a tyrannical bible-thumper who screams at him to do his chores.

However, Feuerzeig makes it clear that Johnstons parents are not to blame for his later transformation into a delusional Jesus freak convinced that Satan is out to get him. Instead, Johnston brings his problems on himself through his reckless behavior and absence of anything resembling logic. Convinced that college is not the right place for him, Johnston joins a traveling carnival and is knocked unconscious by a carnie after taking too long in the porta-pottie.

Afterwards, Johnston wanders around in a daze until he arrives at the Church of Christ, where he receives food and lodging. Although the movie never fully explains Johnstons illness or how it originated, the bizarre juxtaposition of events plays a crucial role in his religious conversion.

Johnstons passion for music takes him to Austin, where he works at McDonalds while recording an album. A combination of luck and fearlessness leads to his almost instant success. He attends a concert for the band Glass Eye and afterwards approaches singer Kathy McCarty with his tape. After running into Kathy a second time, he asks how she liked his music. Refusing to admit that she hasnt listened to the tape, she tells him it was wonderful and invites him to open for her band. Later, when she does listen to his music, she is blown away by its incredible genius.

Johnstons music is abrasive and unpolished but strangely moving. With a rasping voice that makes him sound like he is on the edge of dying and mordantly humorous lyrics (He was smiling through his own personal hell/dropped his last dime down a wishing well/But he was hoping too close/and then he fell/nows he Casper the Friendly Ghost), Johnston is the forerunner to such indie-rock gods as Bright Eyes Conor Oberst.

As a result, critics praise Johnston for the raw power of his music, and fans sabotage McDonalds to get his autograph. Meanwhile, Johnstons illness spirals out of control, leading to destructive behavior that lands him in mental homes and in jail. His family no longer recognizes him; while visiting home for Christmas, he tackles his brother, giving him a broken rib.

Feuerzeig tells Johnstons story through snapshots, interviews, dramatic re-enactments, and concert footage. Rarely does Johnston himself speak directly to the camera; instead, his tape recordings, home videos, artwork and song lyrics speak for him. This technique energizes an otherwise unremarkable story, but it also prevents the movie from providing deeper access into Johnstons mind.

Certain actions are shown through Johnstons eyes, but they dont indicate the emotions behind these actions. For instance, as one interviewee describes the time that Johnston broke into a house and drove an old lady out the window, the camera moves through doors and ends on a window frame lying in the grass. The music and lighting are lifeless; the scene could be unfolding from anyones perspective.

A movie that uses similar techniques to much greater depth and impact is Jonathan Cauouettes Tarnation, a self-portrait about de-personalization disorder. The movie itself operates under this very affliction, drifting in and out of the subjects perspective so that we can both observe and share in his experiences.

In contrast, “The Devil and the Daniel Johnston keeps us only on the outside, turning Johnstons insanity-induced performances into a spectacle. The sight of the flab on his arms jiggling as he waves them in the air, prophesizing about the dangers of Satan, is pathetic; the adoration of his fans beguiling.

The movie does succeed, however, in showing how Johnston sabotages the lives around him while he lives on in blissful artistic removal from reality. Before one concert, he goes off his medication for a week to give his fans the craziness they have come to expect, then nearly kills his family in an accident afterwards.

Lewis Black, friend of Johnston and editor of the Austin Chronicle, reminds us that we can appreciate the Van Goghs and Virginia Wolffs of the world, but its hard to romanticize mental illness when we are forced to personally deal with the realitiesthe broken bones, the hospitals, and the heartache.

Written by Karen Findley