DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, THE
The highest profile that indie musician Daniel Johnston achieved was to have his album cover on a t-shirt worn repeatedly by Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain. However, to many, including Cobain, Johnston was and is the best living songwriter in America. His cassette tapes, with squiggly cartoon cover art glued on to their fronts, permeated the Austin music scene and beyond, propelled by Johnston's determination and self-belief. His is a story of strange talent, ambition, deterioration and evangelicalism. Jeff Feuerzeig's mostly chronological film follows the manic-depressive musician from his childhood in an orthodox Christian household, through the early stages of a burgeoning music career in Austin (appearing on MTV and working at McDonald's in tandem) and finally to his days failing under the weight of his degenerative condition.
Review by Joel Meares:
Regardless of whether you like Daniel Johnston's music or, indeed, whether you can even tolerate it, Johnston is an undeniably riveting documentary subject. His is the classic rock 'n' roll story: eccentric childhood; repressive parents; supportive managers; vices, and rock solid bottoms. Even if it lacks the dizzying highs and wallows in the inglorious lows, there is a train-wreck fascination in all of it. Feuerzeig fuses together Johnston's life through home movies, interviews with family and industry associates, re-enactments and animation. It is a successful piece, rendered with a mania mirroring its subject, which although intriguing is slightly less than brilliant.
Feuerzeig benefits greatly from a wealth of material created firsthand by Daniel himself. As though Johnston knew this film would someday come it seems he recorded every conversation he had, and as a teenager in West Virginia, made movies dramatising his domestic woes (his mother Mabel harangued him for being an "unproductive servant"). The accumulation of this footage and audio offers an absorbingly direct insight. These tape recordings, and films of later concerts, become increasingly disturbing as his manic-depression takes hold and Johnston fixates his mind on a self-destructive battle with the "evils of Satan".
Arranging his material in a superb montage of creeping dilapidation, Feuerzeig elicits levels of pity and admiration from his audience. It is a confronting seesaw of a film. At times we chuckle at the sardonic understatement of his parents ("He was a trial") only to later cry with them as they weep at memories of their son's downfall. Daniel too is often hilarious, as when singing about Mountain Dew, but the humour is always contained by the realisation of the illness partly creating it. It is this hesitation to respond to the film with entire emotions, where one is cautious to laugh with Daniel and wary of pitying sympathy, that makes it somewhat staid. It is intriguing and stimulating as a study, but often more awkward than affecting as an experience.
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DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, THE (M)
CAST: Documentary with Daniel Johnston, Louis Black, Bill Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov
PRODUCER: Henry S. Rosenthal
DIRECTOR: Jeff Feuerzeig
SCRIPT: Jeff Feuerzeig
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Fortunato Procopio
EDITOR: Tyler Hubby
MUSIC: Daniel Johnston
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 27, 2006