The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Written by:
Les Wright
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Daniel Johnston is probably the non plus ultra of artistic insiders. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening once opined that someone should make a film about Daniel Johnston. The late Kurt Cobain launched the Daniel Johnston cult by sporting a tee shirt bearing a signature line drawing of Johnston during the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards broadcast. Daniel Johnston really does exist and lives with his now-aged Christian fundamentalist parents in suburban Texas. He has been hailed a musical and artistic genius, both because and in spite of being overcome repeatedly by towering inner demons. Feuerzeig’s documentary is an amazing, mind-boggling, disturbing, hilarious, and utterly moving and unforgettable film experience. Offering up a mostly self-portrait, Daniel Johnston emerges as part early Bob Dylan, part Vincent Van Gogh, part Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys), but uniquely himself.

To an unusual degree, Feuerzeig allows the subject of his study to speak for himself. Daniel Johnston has been an obsessive self-documentor, the kind that that historians and archivists love. Johnston has also been an indefatigable self-promoter. His style is hard-core naive-artistic folk. Composing the music and lyrics for an album of raw, poetic folk music, one complete album at a time, Johnston would typically record it on low-quality audio cassette tape. Instead of making multiple copies, he would rerecord, that is, completely reenact the performance, from start to finish, each time someone requested a copy of it.

Johnston grew up in New Cumberland, Virginia, reclusive and eccentric. From an early age he was obsessively preoccupied with creative activities, such as recording stories on audio tape and directing and starring in inventively absurd super-8 home movies. In those he seems to match up a kind of Peter Sellers buffoonery with an Ed Woods-like grandiose vision. He drew comic books and made animated cartoon films, but was rarely able to pay attention to the mundane details of everyday life. His strict, unimaginative, simple parents could do little to help him; they scarcely comprehended him at all. One day Daniel simply ran off with the circus, quite literally, and ended up in Austin, Texas, broke, alone, and unable to take care of himself.

Austin is where Daniel’s impossible, incomprehensible life as a creative genius took off. He became legendary in the Austin folk music scene during the 1980s. Johnston’s creative productivity skyrocketed, as did his underground fame, growing ego and mental illness. Feuerzeig allows the contours of Johnston’s life to fall into place of their own accord – artistic genius fired by compulsive-obsessive impulses, the sharp, calculating mind of a self-promoting entrepreneur undercut by pathological delusions of grandeur.

From his first breakdown leading to a long period of institutionalization and his notably career-shaking meltdown in the 1990s, Johnston has rebounded again and again. Today he is world famous, greatly respected as an "outsider" artist. Johnston’s art has been exhibited in art galleries around the world. David Bowie invited Johnston to perform in London in 2002. Commissioned by the Lyon Opera Ballet, choreographer Bill T. Jones created a piece set to six of his songs. Through all of this, he remains human-sized, a brilliant-but-fragile exotic talent blooming in the thick of his own insanity. Feuerzeig’s insightful, compassionate, emotionally intelligent film is itself a part Johnston’s life work.

Les Wright

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