The Devil And Daniel Johnston

The Devil And Daniel Johnston


Reviewed by: George Williamson

You probably haven't heard of Daniel Johnston, but he is arguably one of the best and most infuential singer/songwriters of the late 20th century. He's also a very disturbed person.

Born into a conservative family, Daniel was always very different to his siblings. He was difficult, hyperactive and extremely creative, while they were good, if a little dull, Christian children. Once in school, he became known as "that art kid", drawing for his friends, recording homemade Super-8 movies and starting to write and record strange, instantly affecting music.

Copy picture

He would play either guitar or piano and sing his weird lyrics into cheap tape recorders, saturating friends and acquaintances with hand dubbed cassettes. His musical career didn't take off for several years and things only started to happen after he moved to Texas - he was dumped there after a brief stint as a carnival worker - when his music was played on an MTV special in 1985.

Unfortunately, fame didn't agree with Daniel, who soon descended into drug hell, causing him to preach evangelically and share his paranoid delusions about Satan. Various artists tried to work with him, including Sonic Youth and Jad Fair, but the collaborations were always tense, due to Daniel's erratic moods and manic depressive personality that resulted in repeated trips to mental hospitals. After a complete breakdown in the mid-Nineties, he has slowly managed to regain a purchase on reality and is recording new music - even doing live shows occasionally - that suggests a revival.

Jeff Feuerzeig has created a shining portrait of Daniel Johnston that will appeal to fans and the uninitiated equally. Even if you don't like Johnston's music - it isn't all that accessible - the care and detail put into the retelling of his life cannot be faulted. The film is littered with Johnston's own cartoon illustrations - bleeding eyeballs on stalks, skeletons, alien frogs, the Devil. He's now a successful Outsider artist, selling more of his drawings and paintings than his music. These pictures and the Super 8 footage he shot as a child introduce you to the intricate world Daniel created around himself in a way that mere reminicences cannot.

It's truly fascinating to see his early work and listen to dictated tapes that explain his feelings, reveal his inner turmoil and the unrequited love for a girl named Laurie, who was to be a central muse in much of his music, and the slow, insidious slide into insanity; they are raw, unedited soundbites of his life, and, like his music, windows into his soul. Stylistically, it's reminicent of recent oddball documentaries - the sections of American Splendor that deal with the real Harvey Pekar, for instance - and the archive material is smoothly integrated into the whole.

Generally, the film is very well produced and interviews concentrate on salient points, without digressing into waffle, or feeling forced. Daniel's music is heard throughout, adding immeasurable depth to his story, as most of the themes in the songs are allegorical, directly linked to life experiences.

The Devil And Daniel Johnston is an inspiring portrayal of an unstable, brilliant artist, dealing with the consequences of fame, mental illness and drug abuse. It's immensely entertaining, without compromising the serious themes that underlie it, and is one of the best documentaries of recent years.

Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2005
Share this with others on...
The Devil And Daniel Johnston packshot
Biographical documentary about an underground singer/songwriter extraordinaire.
Amazon link

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Writer: Jeff Feuerzeig

Starring: Daniel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov, Bill Johnston, Louis Black, Mabel Johnston

Year: 2005

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

Search database: