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Sound and Fury: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Family portrait of Mabel Johnston, Daniel Johnston (top center) and Bill Johnston / Photo from Johns

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Friday, March 31, 2006

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
(Sony Pictures Classics)
In theaters now

Reviewed by Lawrence Levi

The first time I heard Daniel Johnston's music was back in the late '80s. A song came on my college's radio station, transfixing me with a shaky, Muppetlike voice, the rudimentary strumming of an out-of-tune guitar and the naiveté of its lovelorn lyrics: “I did acid with Caroline/And we both had a real good time/We talked till two in the morning/Playing records and I showed her some drawings.” It was brief, and baffling: who is this guy? And is he kidding?

He wasn't kidding. Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary portrait, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, makes it clear that Johnston and his music are nothing if not sincere, and, moreover, that he's one messed-up guy. The movie traces Johnston's tortured path from precocious kid making art in his parents' basement, to oddball hipster-beloved songwriter and erratic performer, back to his parents' home as a semi-functional middle-aged burnout. It's an amazing story.

Johnston grew up the youngest of several children in a Christian fundamentalist West Virginia household, where as a teenager he infuriated his mother by showing interest only in recording his weird songs and drawing and making Super 8 films. He was charming and compulsively creative, obsessed with the Beatles and comic books. After an art school stint he wound up in Austin, handing his homemade cassettes to musicians and journalists and cleaning tables at McDonald's. When MTV came to town in 1985 to cover the burgeoning music scene, Johnston got himself in front of the cameras.

By then he was already showing signs of instability. In 1986, after dropping acid at a Butthole Surfers show, he completely lost it. He got delusional, violent and suicidal. Thanks to his habit of recording much of his life, we get to see it. These audio and video clips are the most powerful and disturbing aspect of an already fascinating movie. We hear him read, in an unnervingly agitated voice, the many symptoms of manic depression; he seems to realize he displays them all. We see him onstage, singing, proselytizing, sobbing and breaking down. We hear a policeman at the Statue of Liberty chastise him after he's scrawled a bunch of Jesus fish on the walls inside the statue. We hear him scream at his alarmed New York friends (among them members of Sonic Youth) that Satan is what's causing them to want to call his parents.

Johnston was in and out of mental institutions for years after some really frightening incidents — one involved scaring the bejesus out of an old woman, another a harrowing flight with his father on a small airplane. Yet Feuerzeig keeps the movie fast-paced and lighthearted, letting us hear, for example, the paean to Mountain Dew that Johnston composed during one of his periods of confinement. The clips of his early performances show, despite his nervousness, how ebullient he could be. (I was irritated by the repetition of the piano theme from Johnston's song “Some Things Last a Long Time,” which gives the movie a PBS flavor.)

Feuerzeig also seems starstruck. The movie barely questions the perspective of interviewees like Louis Black, the Austin Chronicle editor who regards Johnston as a mad genius; an animated sequence shows him in succession with van Gogh and Artaud and Plath. Only a few interviewees poke holes in the myth. Kathy McCarty, who briefly dated Johnston when he arrived in Austin (his first gig was opening for her band, Glass Eye) and who later recorded an album of his songs, says that in his career he was self-sabotaging to a “mystifying” degree, but “in terms of creating a legend, he's done absolutely everything right.”

Once the movie reaches the present, there's a pileup of information, and it's excessively cheerful — too many images of Johnston smiling, though all he seems to be doing now is deteriorating. However clumsy the “arrangement” of Johnston's recordings, the songs are often haunting — “so raw and so real,” as McCarty puts it. (She notes that in Austin, audiences never knew how to respond to him at first — “Is this a joke?” — just as I didn't know.) His Magic Marker drawings, with their endless iterations of Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and the Devil, are childlike, but their soul-scraping honesty can be truly affecting. I went to a Johnston concert in 1999 and saw a bloated, confused-looking man racing through songs, seemingly unaware of the audience or his own backup band. Like this movie, it was heartbreaking.

*****

For more, visit:

The Official Daniel Johnston Web Site: Hi, How Are You?

Daniel Johnston in this year's Whitney Biennial



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