Review: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

A lot of people have made money off of Daniel Johnston, usually by ignoring his mental illness. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is another attempt to cash in on a severely troubled individual by exploiting his art. To his credit, Feuerzeig displays a concerned attitude about someone more famous for his sickness than his actual accomplishments. But the film can’t quite shake the stench of a carnival freak show.

Johnston grew up in West Virginia and Texas in a strict but apparently loving household. By adolescence he had lost interest in school, devoting his time instead to obsessive drawing and recording on portable cassettes. Running away from home, he joined a carnival for a time before winding up in Austin in 1985. While cleaning tables at a McDonalds, he insinuated himself into the local music scene. His fans admired his unmediated songwriting, choppy guitar playing, and unpolished but emotional singing. As Kathy McCarty, at the time a member of the Glass Eye rock band, remembers, “He was so raw that people didn’t know what to feel.”

He was also seriously psychotic, ending up in a mental institution after beating his manager in the head with a pipe. As the rest of the film makes painfully clear, Johnston has never been able to find a balance between his need to create and his mental problems. To many of his followers, that is part of his appeal. Louis Black, an editor at the Austin Chronicle, states that, “All great artists are crazy people.” In the film’s faulty logic, since Johnston is crazy, he is a great artist.

Johnston returned to his parents in 1987 under heavy medication. Believing that his inspiration, and his performances, suffered, he would go off his meds prior to concerts. One admiring account has him released from New York’s Bellevue Hospital by mistake, and performing at CBGB’s that night. Musicians like Pete Shelley of Sonic Youth and Jad Fair of Half Japanese were perfectly happy to work with Johnston until he got too “crazy,” then abandon him.

Using interviews, slides, home movies, and artwork, Feuerzeig documents the most miserable details of Johnston’s life in voyeuristic detail. How he forced an elderly woman to jump out a second floor window, breaking her ankles, for example. Or how he wrestled the controls of an airplane from his father, who subsequently crash landed in a forest. In a particularly graceless touch, Feuerzeig uses lurching, hand-held cameras to re-enact psychotic episodes like these. Crumb is an obvious influence, but Terry Zwigoff never tried to pretend that mental illness was anything but a terrible burden.

Johnston’s bewildered, tearful parents are the strongest presence in the film, and the strongest proof that Johnston needs help, not vultures and hangers-on who see a fortune in the ravings of a madman. If nothing else, The Devil and Daniel Johnston shows just how easily hype and gossip can dupe a public hungry for anything new.

Cast and crew

Featuring: Daniel Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Bill Johnston, David Thornberry, Kathy McCarty, Louis Black, Jeff Tartakov, Jad Fair, David Fair, Jason Damron, Bridget Damron, John Pochna, Don Goede, Matt Groening.

Credits: Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Produced by Henry Rosenthal. Executive producer: Ted Hope. Director of photography: Fortunato Procopio. Edited by Tyler Hubby. A This and That and Complex Corporation presentation of a Henry Rosenthal production.

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