2005 was the year of the rock doc, and Judge Bill Gibron thought he had seen all the great ones—that is, until this stunning masterpiece about the crazy cult icon crossed his path.
True love will find you in the end
If you believe the myth, raging inside each and every artist is a constant battle between imagination and insanity. To be so gifted—at least according to those on the outside looking in—one must be touched. Indeed, when creativity cracks open your skull and settles in, many believe that a few unwanted ancillary elements sneak in as well. With evidence as ancient as Van Gogh and as recent as Kurt Cobain, we enjoy our artists on the decidedly tortured side. We don't want to think genius comes easy, as it inspires too much personal jealousy. At the same time, we sense the suffering inside almost every talented person and create our own brain-damaged backstory to help metaphysically heal it. The truth is, most brilliance exists without a reciprocal sense of lunacy and those who are nuts aren't necessarily closet creators just looking for the right combination of pills to free their disturbed aptitude.
Yet every once in a while, someone comes along who seems undeniably linked to both their skills and their sanity. Brian Wilson comes to mind, as does Jackson Pollack. We can also add Daniel Johnston to this incredibly short list. Combining infinite amounts of pre- and post- teen angst with a simplistic approach to song styling, this basement superstar (and confirmed Beatles fanatic) has waged war with himself for nearly three decades. Now, thanks to filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, we can witness his massive mental mêlées for ourselves. In The Devil and Daniel Johnston, we get a devastating portrait of pain improperly channeled and human horrors made very, very real. By the end, we don't really have a clear image of how talent and tomfoolery coexist, but what we do get is one of the best documentaries ever made about individual imbalance ever captured on film.
Facts of the Case
Daniel Johnston can best be described as the alternative rock scene's favorite enigma. He's a respected and worshipped singer/songwriter almost completely unknown to the mainstream media. His most important career phase came in the mid-'80s, when he mixed a home recording ideal with a job in fast food (???) to become as infamous as he was a certifiable celebrity. Yet none of this really seemed unusual for the impressionable young man. From the time he was very young, Daniel had four main goals—to make movies, to draw comic books, to write music—and to become famous from one or all three. His parents, devoutly religious and sick of his slacking, pressured him incessantly to stop living like a bum. Then drugs did Daniel in. After dropping out of college and dropping acid for the first time, this already-borderline basket case fell far over the edge. Eventually diagnosed with severe manic depression, Daniel was hypermedicated, undertreated, and sent for several stays in mental hospitals, yet still managed to become an outsider icon. Bringing everyone—family, friends (both typical and famous), business associates, and various humoring hangers-on—into his deepening downward spiral, it looked like nothing would save this addled artist. Apparently, there was a battle going on between The Devil and Daniel Johnston and, for the longest time, the Dark One was winning.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is the kind of documentary that invents all the eventual critical clichés. It's masterful proof that fact is far more intriguing than fiction, a flawless illustration that the drama of reality often eclipses the subjective seriousness of art. It uses the thread of celebrity as a means of binding together the eccentricity of musicians, the pain of dreams deferred, the social and interpersonal unacceptability of mental illness, and talent's knack for traversing even the most rough-hewn human walkway. Yes, Johnston comes off like an underground Brian Wilson, a naïve creator of magical pop music whose bubbling inner demons eventually damaged and destroyed his soul. Certainly, his obsessive desire to tape each and every event in his life, including arguments, arrests, and psychotic episodes reminds one of Jonathan Caouette's terrific Tarnation, itself a video diary of one man's personal war with his mom's fractured psyche. Indeed we learn that some minds are never meant to heal. In the case of Johnston, they are to be tolerated and celebrated, given as much slack as possible until the proper combination of meds can come along and sooth its savage heat.
Yet there is so much more to this movie than it's almost un-scriptable narrative line. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is not just an overview of a considered cult artist or a look inside one family's dealing with dementia. No, this is a movie that strives to explore the drive to create and the obstacles both personal and public that keep such an obsession in check. By digging deeper into his subject's situation than ever before, by relying on truth rather than fake forged artifice, director Jeff Feuerzeig converts Johnston's minor musical career into a stunning symbol of originality's ability to mesmerize. Unlike his previous rock doc effort—1993's self-effacing and smug Half Japanese: The Band that Would Be King—Feuerzeig doesn't manipulate the material here. When discussing the equally idiosyncratic Jad Fair and his time as an avant-garde icon, the filmmaker piled on the phoniness, allowing critics and scholars to pontificate on the singer/songwriter's importance as if his place in the canon of classic pop artists was already long secured. Here, Feuerzeig's approach is far more appropriate. Johnston's story is so inherently compelling, so overloaded with unexpected twists and turns that there's no need to embellish it with ersatz erudition. All the talking heads here have lived the Johnston experience—his dizzying manias and his fatalistic depressions. They've all been scarred by their association with this flawed figure on the fringes of the commercial soundscape and, the minute Feuerzeig turns his camera on them, the wounds slowly open up and seep.
The most painful portrait painted is of Johnston's aging parents, Bill and Mabel. White-haired and quite frail, these deeply religious people now play the resigned realists who recognize their son's shattered psychology. Thanks to the hundreds of recorded cassettes and a wealth of home movie footage archived by their offspring, a far more frightening impression is offered. It was obvious from a very early age that Daniel was striving to break out of his family's clearly defined and defended Christianity. He was schooled incessantly in the ways of the Bible, taught the clear dichotomies of Heaven and Hell, and basically brainwashed into a belief that the Devil was around every corner, promising him the fame he so desperately sought with a mind-shattering price tag of eternal damnation. Combine this with his already tenuous artistic temperament, a semi-social awkwardness, and a need for attention and acceptance, and you have an emotional powder keg simply waiting for the right authority figure flash to set it off. Such a spark came from Mabel, Daniel's mother. Quoting scripture to get her seemingly lazy son to "get a job" and "stop being a bum," her constant chiding set Daniel off on a quest for inner relevance. It was a journey he was horribly ill prepared for, and even with the help of his music, his comic books, and his drawing, he was defenseless against the truths he would face.
Daniel wasn't an adolescent raised with a clear link to the responsibilities of the real world. While his parents believed that their work ethic would easily translate to their children (it worked with Daniel's much older siblings), they failed to see that, via their minor theocracy, they were isolating their son even more. There is a subtle undercurrent running all throughout The Devil and Daniel Johnston, an almost unspoken belief in the dangers of devotion. When he finally snaps, Daniel descends into a near-religious zealotry, blaming altercations with local townsfolk on "unseen demons" and arguing with the members of Sonic Youth that "Satan" is organizing everyone against him. In his mind, Daniel believes the Devil is truly after him, convinced that somewhere along the line he made a pact with the Fallen One, and that now the Mangoat is demanding payback. It sounds strange and slightly surreal, but to watch the fear burning in the electric eyes of this psychologically torn man is mesmerizing. At first it seems false, like the made-up rantings of an unhappy individual, but as the discussions turn more and more non-linear, as the battle between good and evil starts to incorporate superheroes, comic book characters, and a broader cosmic consideration, we can literally watch reality slip from Johnston's grasp. Unlike someone like Brian Wilson, who appeared lost in a fog of his own mental fallacy, Johnston is out to battle wickedness. Sadly, he is unable to take on the task alone.
Of course, all of this is fairly commonplace for our post-modern society. We have long since stopped stigmatizing mental illness. In fact, we embrace it much more readily than other equally troubling "diseases." So Johnston has our sympathy almost automatically, but when we finally get to hear his amazing music, a kind of nursery-rhyme version of power pop with all the posing stripped away and influences seamlessly fused, everything gets elevated to a higher level of consideration. Obviously gifted, but unclear on how to manage his muse, Johnston lives to play and record. For the first few years of his career, he literally gave his songs away, so desperate for feedback that he'd roam around whatever town he was in at the time and place homemade cassettes in the hands of complete strangers. After a fluke appearance on MTV made him a local Austin, Texas, legend, he still was not "officially" a recording artist. He was an outsider musician, making his own particular brand of noise and doing whatever he could to get it to the audience. Even more amazing, he worked at McDonald's all throughout his initial pre-insanity bout with stardom. As we watch the opening hour of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, seeing the signs and fearing the worst, we wonder just how bad it will turn. When we see the eventual devastation, we ponder if anyone could ever survive such an inner struggle. Of course, the finale is so emotionally fulfilling, so oddly optimistic that we can't help but cheer. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is one of those rare films where you feel you've made the voyage right along with the individuals involved. You become so wrapped up in the nuances and the travails that the eventual reveal is a complete catharsis.
The truth be told, you will probably not see a better film this year than The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It is Oscar caliber, not only in its designs but also in its daring. Some may argue that, as a continuing sufferer of major manic depression, Johnston is being exploited a bit, both by Feuerzeig and by the individuals who still market his music and his drawings. Indeed, one of the persistent thoughts that hover over this remarkable masterpiece is whether Johnston would be this kind of famous (he can claim a "cult of personality disorder") had he stayed "straight," never been hospitalized, and pursued his career through conventional avenues. From a scene late in the third act, the answer appears to be no. Unfortunately, it appears that Johnston's traumatized state of mind is what fuels his fanbase. Technically, there is nothing wrong with showering support onto someone who may or may not understand or appreciate the accolade, but there is something sort of sleazy about celebrating a man who made music while in the throws of debilitating madness. Yet because of Feuerzeig's craftsmanship behind the camera, because of the ways in which he adds dimension to each and every story and personality involved, we get much more than a standard rags-to-Ritalin story. Jeff Feuerzeig has created a definitive work of pure documentary art with The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It will resonate long after the novelty of Johnston's endearing music fades out like the final track on an album.
Continuing the praise for this near-perfect motion picture, Sony has delivered a delightful DVD package full of flawless sound and impeccable vision. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is made up of various elements—video, home movies, traditional film, digital as well as VHS tape—and such an amalgamation of original source material could be deadly to a transfer. Still, everything here is rendered resplendent, thanks to the technical acumen seen on this disc. The optical elements here match the movie faultlessly. On the sound side, we get an equally effective Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, loaded with ambience and directional details. During the live concert sequences shown, we actually feel like we're in the audience, and when parts of Johnston's aural diaries are played, we can practically hear the old cassette tapes oxidizing.
As for added content, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is virtually overflowing with bonus goodness. First up, we get an excellent, anecdote-driven commentary track from filmmaker Feuerzeig and his partner in sublime cinematic crime, Henry S. Rosenthal. Obviously pleased with the resulting movie—and boy do they have a right to be—they sprinkle their engaging discussion with insights into Johnston's current condition, how they gained the confidence of the rest of the artist's family, and the reaction people have had to the film. It a winning complement to an already-stellar entertainment experience. In addition, we are treated to a collection of deleted scenes (interesting, but none actually essential), a look at Daniel's home movies (clips of which are featured in the film itself), a chance to hear Johnston's audio diaries, a radio interview on WFMU, a glimpse at the world premiere at Sundance, and, perhaps most important, a reunion featurette between Daniel and his college obsession, a lovely young lady named Laurie. She is, undoubtedly, Johnston's biggest inspiration. In fact, he has often said that he wrote every single one of his love songs to her. Anyway, instead of being afraid to face a man whose mental history precedes him, Laurie is open and warm, and the footage we see of them together is incredible. Along with a few additional surprises, we end up with a fully-loaded DVD presentation that does this remarkable movie proud.
There is no question about Daniel Johnston's state of mind. He's insane, certifiably and undeniably. His psychosis has a basis in both brain chemistry and deep-seeded interpersonal turmoil. He is a gifted artist, a unique musician, and a slightly surreal underground celebrity. How much of his creativity stems from his psychology, and how much of his fame is based on such bipolar ballyhoo is a question for scholars of such substrata savants to determine. What's clear is that director Jeff Feuerzeig is a genius, able to take a story that seems strangely familiar and freshen it up with touches both painstaking and prescient. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is more than just a VH-1 style Behind the Music exposé. Instead, it's one of the best, most mesmerizing films of this new post-millennial decade, right up there with equally compelling creations like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and DiG!. Rock-and-roll and the individuals who make it—and more importantly, long to do so—get another blast of pure cathartic cleansing. By telling the tale of this gifted, if haunted, man of many talents, Feuerzeig probably hoped to settle the whole crazy/creative debate once and for all. After viewing The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the answer seems more mysterious and ethereal than ever before. It is possible that Daniel Johnston was touched by the gods. For his part, he clearly believes his is the work of the Devil. Maybe both sides are right.
Not guilty! The Devil and Daniel Johnston is easily one of the best music documentaries ever made and one of the best movies of this, or any other, year.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Jeff Feuerzeig and Producer Henry S. Rosenthal
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