The documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston mentions a day in the life of the singer/songwriter that neatly sums up his inner struggles. During the first part of the day, Johnston gets released from Bellevue mental hospital due to a clerical error, and that night, he performs at the legendary rock club CBGB.
Introduced as "the best singer/songwriter alive today" early in the film, Johnston remains a fringe figure who came out of Austin's 1980s music scene but never moved past the margins of rock. Johnston's manic-depressive tendencies, exacerbated (the film suggests) by his conservative Christian upbringing, consistently sabotage his musical career.
Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig draws on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Johnston family home movies, notebooks, audiocassettes and interviews to create a vivid portrait of Johnston's music and visual art. As a performer, he's too idiosyncratic to satisfy all tastes: His lyrics have a childlike simplicity and he sings in a nasal quaver, but in his best clips (such as an early performance captured on MTV), he conveys a raw, affecting intensity comparable to early Bob Dylan or Jonathan Richman at his most strung-out.
Johnston's relatives, managers and rock colleagues such as singer Kathy McCarty share numerous quirky anecdotes -- how Johnston worked at McDonald's while becoming a pop cult figure, or how he was being institutionalized as two major record labels engaged in a bidding war over him. His friends and family agonize over the question of how to separate genius from madness, and what happens when creative freedom comes at the expense of personal safety. An eloquent piece of animation presents such mentally ill artists as Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and, finally, Johnston in his McDonald's uniform.
We hear Johnston's voice throughout the film in his music and in videocassettes, and we're struck by the difference between his skinny, boyish youth and his contemporary presence as a sedated hulk. But Johnston almost never comments on his experiences or mental illness, so despite his soul-baring songs, we frequently feel like detached observers to his condition. The Devil and Daniel Johnston lacks the intimacy of such troubled-artist documentaries as Crumb or Sick, but convincingly portrays Johnston as the quintessential tormented troubadour, and his mental illness plays a crucial part in his mystique. As his friend McCarty remarks, despite Johnston's flaws and failures, "In terms of creating a personal legend, he's done everything right."
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