Original post - Tuesday, April 11, 2006
The Devil and Daniel Johnston - Review
You can find my review of the Daniel Johnston doc at the end of the following link.
or here -
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
DIR/WRI: Jeff Feuerzeig • PROD: Henry S. Rosenthal • DOP: Rob Featherstone, Fortunato Procopio • ED: Tyler Hubby •CAST: Daniel Johnston, Louis Black, Bill Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov.
This can be a difficult documentary to watch, as there is always a worry as to where the line between collaboration/elucidation and exploitation lies when you are dealing with someone who has ongoing psychological problems. However, the compelling nature of the story unfolding means that you are sucked in despite whatever reservations you may have.Who is Daniel Johnston? Well, he is a sort of American primitive mash-up of the Beatles and the Beach Boys as recorded by a primitive folk artist in the 1920s.
His cassette-only releases gained him recognition from the kingpins of the American underground, including Sonic Youth, The Butthole Surfers and, most famously, Kurt Cobain. He is obsessed with the Devil and has a personal iconography which he uses repeatedly in his songs and drawings. It includes the Devil, crying frogs, an ex-girlfriend's horn-rimmed glasses, and Daniel himself as a boxer with the top of his head cut off.This documentary is constructed from a huge amount of source material, which includes lots of home movie footage, some TV footage, interviews, and the series of cassette 'letters' that Daniel sent to his friends and manager. This means that we get very close to the subject and have a direct experience of how Daniel was thinking at key moments. These recordings are often very direct, and he even breaks into song on some – acting very much as a Greek chorus to his own story. His story includes some episodes which have all the elements of the great pub anecdote – but they're true.We see Daniel wangle his way onto MTV, which has the unforeseen side effect of getting him more hours in McDonald's as a result of his new-found fame. After a particular breakdown we are faced with him telling us that he 'used to be Daniel Johnston' and picking up discarded letter 'E's from a pile of junk. These, he avers, are a sign that EVIL is rampant. A picture of myriad pill bottles with his name on them tells a heartrending story of prescriptions that simply didn't work. When we hear how he took acid at a Butthole Surfers gig, the shadow of Syd Barrett grows large, and indeed Barrett's solo albums are among the better references for what Johnston does. Other events include one in which an old woman is terrified into jumping from a second floor window, and one of his closest allies is hit over the head with a piece of lead piping.
A flight home with his father comes to a STICKy end among some trees, and signals the possibility that this story is heading for a very dark end. But against the odds, and with the assistance of parents, friends and admirers, he goes on and, as in Beckett, that alone is a victory of sorts. A sign which the family sees outside a church on the way home from the plane crash says 'God promises a safe landing but not a calm voyage'. Go along for the ride.