"The Devil and Daniel Johnston"
5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Aug. 23, 2006
Movie review by David MalschI first got the chance to see "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" over a year ago at the SXSW Film and Music Festival in Austin, Texas. I was lucky enough to squeeze into a screening where the director and star of the film were on hand for a Q&A following the film. I was also lucky enough to catch a live performance by Johnston in a bookstore. Upon leaving the screening I headed to a free outdoor afternoon party that featured live music by Embrace, the Kaiser Chiefs and a whole lot of free Shiner bock beer. I get wrecked that day and even bumped into David Johansen of the New York Dolls. It was a great day that I will never forget except that the next morning I couldn't write a film review to save my life. Thankfully, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" garnered much deserved praise and was released nationwide and I was given a second chance to review one of the best music documentaries ever made. In fact it is also one of the best documentaries made since Crumb in 1994.
It tells the brilliant and tortured life of Daniel Johnston, this generation's version of a Bob Dylan or Brian Wilson. Wilson is a perfect comparison to Johnston because they are both victims of manic depression. Johnston has spent his entire life channeling his dementia into art that includes drawings and music. He is the type of musician that doesn't dazzle you with his voice but rather through his heartbreakingly real and honest lyrics. He was born in 1961 and grew up the youngest child of 5 in a Christian fundamentalist home in West Virginia. He was obsessed with the Beatles, Captain America and Satan. While never embracing his families religion has a child, the older he got and the farther away he traveled mentally and physically, the devil was always there to haunt him.
He joined up with a travelling carnival in 1983 and ended up in Austin beaten and bewildered by a carny for spending too much time in a Porta-Pottie. He spent every minute of his days recording songs and drawing pictures and began to hand out his work to anyone willing to accept it. For those people who actually took the time to listen to his music, they were blown away by his genius. He couldn't sing to save his life and he could barely play the guitar and piano but it was the music he created that blew people away. He stayed in Austin and got to be a part of the thriving music scene there and he even weaseled his way onto MTV while they were there featuring the music of Austin. He became a legend in Austin overnight but he never quit his job at McDonald's and it seemed just when success was knocking at his door, the devil was there to ruin it.
He ended up in mental hospitals and refused to take his medicine because it subdued his live performances. He traveled to New York City to record with Sonic Youth and landed in Bellevue Hospital only to escape in time to play a show at CBGB's. At the height of Nirvana, a record executive visited Daniel in a mental ward to sign him up on a major label all because Kurt Cobain was his biggest fan. He chose Atlantic records over Elektra because Metallica scared him with their songs about the devil. He beat his manager with a pipe and even caused his dad to crash the family plane just for the attention. He was a danger not only to himself at times but to anyone near him.
There are interviews in the film from the people who know him best from friends in Austin to his mentally exhausted family in West Virginia. But his parents Bill and Mabel never gave up on him and cry some very real tears in this film, Daniel still lives with them and they have recently moved to Texas. There is also an amazing interview with Gibby Haines from the Butthole Surfers while he is getting his teeth worked on at the dentist office. Gibby talks about the time Daniel dropped acid backstage for the first time, as if being a manic depressive wasn't dangerous enough, let's add more drugs to the mix.
Director Jeff Feuerzeig has made a tremendous film about an amazing artist. Johnston spent his entire life recording every thought and song onto cassettes and had endless footage of his life on 8MM film stock. All Feuerzeig had to do was put it all together to tell the story, with this archive of footage and some added animation, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is an amazing piece of work. He never sugarcoats or ignores the trials and tribulations of Johnston's life and at the same time he never exploits him for a minute. He is just a fan just like thousands or other people honoring this possessed and glorious talent.
"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" takes you to the very top of Johnston's career and to the very bottom of his dementia, he is such a sweet man to the core that you can't help but care and root for him to overcome his demons. Daniel Johnston isn't someone you want to really know or be with on a daily basis; his life is far too complicated to be a part of. But through this glorious film you will never forget him, he may just stay with you for the rest of your life.
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