Film Reviews

The Devil and Daniel Johnston Jeff Feuerzeig

Rating - 9/10

Documentaries can sometimes be dry affairs, presenting predictable discussions and rehashing facts over and over to drive home a point or message. The Devil and Daniel Johnston seamlessly sidesteps all of that, telling a story of a man simultaneously traveling down a road leading toward fame as well as mental instability.

Everything in Daniel Johnston's life makes for a phenomenal tale, starting with his upbringing in a Christian-conservative household and his struggles with his parents who urge him to do simple things like his chores and going out to find a job. Instead, Daniel passes his time drawing pictures and writing simple, but profound music on the piano in their small and dirty basement. He's socially awkward which is apparent in pictures of his youth. The only time he seems confident and alive is when he is creating. His driving rhythms and frequently cracking voice almost make you smile at first, thinking the music to be something fresh off of YouTube... and if that site had been around in the mid 1980's, I'm quite certain his music would have featured. But through a series of remarkable juxtapositions of people and places in Johnston's life, as well as his own drive to be noticed, he gains exposure after moving to Austin, Texas.

In his early artwork, he often included eyeballs in just about every piece he created. Shortly after arriving, he sees a poster for a band named "Glass Eyeball" and is convinced it is a sign that he must see the show. After the show, he gives his tape to the band. One of the members listens to it and they ask him to open for them at the next show. The audience receives him with laughs at first, but by the end they are silent with awe. He continues to get the word out by personally walking up to reviewers and just about anyone who happens to be in the vicinity and asking them to listen to his tape. As you might imagine, his music permeates the entire film and though they generally seem simple almost to the point of being juvenile, his songs are strangely delicate and even quite intricate in certain ways. Several more recent musicians come to mind when you listen, and you realise just how wide his influence has reached across several genres in the music world.

The young Daniel is skinny and a little goofy looking. Though a little bashful on stage, he remains composed for the most part and delivers shows sprinkled with subtle mistakes, which merely provide a genuinely original quality only available in live performances. Any fan would look forward to the next live performance. At home, however, he is battling manic depression. After a few years, his friends and family begin to notice changes in his behavior and became concerned about his well-being, but Daniel chalks most of this up to just being misunderstood. Eventually there is an intervention, but even then Daniel resists acknowledging that anything is wrong.

The direction of the film is great - it showcases much of Daniel's art, and footage of gigs spanning his entire career. Often his old cassette tapes are played back giving a picture of Daniel's creative and mental state at various points in his life, as well as conversations with his parents, and of course some home recorded tracks. His parents are interviewed throughout the film, and you can sense their sadness for Daniel and the struggles that his illness has put him through. It's an amazingly comprehensive collection of footage, owing in part to Daniel's ceaseless picture-taking, and tape-making. In the end you see what has become of Daniel, which is a little hard to predict giving all the twists and turns in his life up to that point. This unpredictability is what draws you in throughout the entire movie.

I put this movie up there with Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, as one of the best documentaries I've seen. To viewers not familiar with Daniel Johnston's music, they may at least recognize some of the tracks, as many musicians have covered his work. You don't need to know his music, however, to appreciate this as a great documentary.