Don’t avoid The Devil and Daniel Johnston just ’cause it’s another damned documentary about a troubled musician. Yes, other recent docs have told us that Metallica’s James Hetfield is troubled; Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe is troubled; the Dolls’ Arthur Kane was troubled (though at least he’s now safe in heaven). I’m troubled, too. Hold my hand.
You’ll be glad to know that primitive-savant songwriter and visual artist Johnston, admired by such cultural godheads as Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth and Matt Groening, is more troubled than most. More important, his story opens a window on the nature of art and the power of myth. The Devil and Daniel Johnston’s director, Jeff Feuerzeig, admits to a near two-decade fascination with his subject, and he’s not alone. In the film, interviewee after interviewee tells of undergoing a luminous epiphany upon first encounter with Johnston’s phantasmagorical art, his cracked vocal whine, and his songs about love, ghosts and motorcycles. People connect, and they want to help (often to their own misfortune). The attraction isn’t Johnston’s draftsmanship, composing, singing, guitar strumming or piano playing, none of which shows huge proficiency. The lure is a hot line to the Real.
We need the link, because we don’t experience things so directly anymore. We e-mail officemates 20 feet away. We think our car crash is “like a movie.” We have sex on the phone. Between a listener and Daniel Johnston, though, there’s almost no medium. No technique. No artifice. No sweetening. When you hear him live or on one of his homemade cassettes, singing about the girl who left him, you know he actually feels like shit. You hear the kind of nervousness that a guy ought to be showing as he spills emotions that mean this much. You hear an unforced beauty in his melodies, which often cycle around, bridgeless and almost chorusless, as if they’ve been there forever. You can even hear the smile he can’t help wearing as the sign of his aliveness. A sensitive few, especially artists like Cobain, respond to that. But as the film shows, it’s one thing to hear Johnston and another to know him — or, worse, to be him. “He was different,” says his God-fearing mom, who, infuriated by her son’s choice of art over chores, used to call him “the unprofitable servant.” Preferring to think of himself as “the unserviceable prophet,” Johnston grew up proud of his talent and convinced of his destiny. “It was my fate to become famous,” he says, “and also to be damned.” His art may have been real, but he himself couldn’t cope with the real world. Manage a career? He could barely clean tables at McDonald’s.
Like many who lack earthly power, Johnston became obsessed with myth, much of it pop-cultural. He considered the Beatles to be gods, and hung their albums on his Christmas tree. When he was about to be signed with Elektra Records, he feared to align himself with the label that represented Metallica, a literally demonic gang in his eyes. Comic book heroes such as Superman and Casper the Ghost influenced him more than friends. He also felt ties with ancient archetypes, like his visionary biblical namesake and, principally, Satan, who sold him fame the same way, the story goes, Old Scratch did with bluesman Robert Johnson. Myth jump-started Johnston’s talent, but myth can unleash unpredictable forces. Already mentally fragile, he wasn’t prepared for what came through the door he’d opened. “Running water,” he sings as if to himself, “what are you running from?”
Johnston’s evolution from skinny young genius to fat old paranoid, aided in the filmic telling by the resource of his own constant self-documentation (tapes, notebooks, home movies), is harrowing to behold. His mother and others have compared his pathology to Brian Wilson’s; there’s something to that, particularly where drugs came in. After Johnston took LSD, his tenuous earthly bond was broken. He was forced to spend more and more time in institutions, finally ending up back in the arms of his aged parents. Some of his mystical encounters are just too spooky and amazing to reveal here, and Feuerzeig (director of previous documentaries on Jon Hendricks and Half Japanese) weaves them into the story with excellent timing and a psychedelic eye, aided by editor Tyler Hubby and cinematographer Fortunato Procopio.
Are we entertained by a fellow man’s misery? Hell yeah. More than that, though (and through a movie, no less), we edge a little closer to real feelings, real craziness, real archetypes — the scary beasts we spend half our time dodging. That’s why there’s so little money in documentary films: They sell food, not fantasy.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON | Directed by JEFF FEUERZEIG | Produced by HENRY S. ROSENTHAL | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters
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