film | reviews
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The entrancing story of a musical genius who defies the odds.
By Gil Leung
Extremes of love, pain, hate and fear are often the topics and narratives that we enjoy at the movies. This movie however is adocumentary about a man who feels these mythologies and extremes of the movies as often as we may rent one out. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a very beautiful, touching and fascinating portrait of a man who has a very unstable character, fluctuating from extrovert to introvert and genius to madman. However it is these fluctuations that perhaps allow him to reach a sublime that many of us can only faintly hear echo in his heartbreaking, honest and beautiful songs.
Raised in a supportive and also fundamentalist Christian family in West Virginia as the youngest son of five children, Daniel very early on began recording his art and music on tape and film. A naturally gifted and prolific artist and musician, he did not really connect within the art institutions he attended and after being spurned in love by the mythical Laurie, dropped out to join the carnival. Months later, knocked unconscious outside a port-a-loo Daniel Johnston, The self-proclaimed genius artist finds himself in Austin, Texas. It is here that the real myth starts taking shape from the one inside daniel’s head. It is the mid-eighties and Daniel Johnston is on MTV holding up a tape cassette album, “Hi how are you, I’m Daniel Johnston”. Success building with his fluctuating manic depressive extrovert nature Daniel drops acid at a Butthole Surfers concert and it is now when Daniel’s relation to the devil really starts to surface. It is at once the start of the public myth that is Daniel Johnston and also the expanding of his own myth of public reality.
Perhaps what is the most interesting thing about Daniel Johnston is his existence at all. Whereas most supposed geniuses are usually only posthumously celebrated or, recognised yet commit suicide, Daniel Johnston seems to be surviving to tell the tale. Comparable, so-called‘outsider’ artists such as Henry Darger were also incredibly prolific in their output over their lifetime but their art was unknown until death. Kurt Cobain, who in fact championed Daniel Johnston is sadly another cliché of the doomed genius artist, along with a score of others too numerous to mention who took their lives around the age of twenty seven. Daniel Johnston, however, has survived. In this way, aside from his own brilliant work, he is somewhat of a rarity. It isoften thought that dying young perhaps increases the pathos we feel when listening to these ghostlike recordings of troubled souls, and perhaps it is better to burn than fade away (see the Rolling Stones' recent concert footage). Perhaps it is better to stumble upon an unknown artist’s work posthumously lest they fail our myths in the flesh. Daniel Johnston is a living and personally mythic example of this not being the case. Despite his vast output of artwork, it retains its integrity. Despite escaping death, Daniel Johnston is very much a ghost, come back from the grave to tell us all: like he could possibly resist.
Feuerzeig’s film is beautifully constructed. Daniel Johnston’s vast amounts of footage and films have been sensitively combined with 16mm interviews and locations, which emphasise and still let the original material breathe. Particularly nice are the taped audio correspondences, which act much like a diary, that are shown, replete with titles and drawings on the tape sticker.
The Devil, Daniel Johnston and Casper the friendly ghost are Daniel Johnston’s own religion, or mythology. His extrovert and unceasingself-perpetuating creativity have, along with determined publicists, made it accessible to the world. Folkloric tradition, fairy tales, the movies, comics, religion and politics all function within narratives of good and evil, they are what constitute most of Western culture and society. Luckily for us we do not truly inhabit them apart from when we wish to. Daniel Johnston does and this film will show you.