Movie Review – The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
“Genius” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially when we talk about people with artistic talent. To so many people, art is so subjective and so personal that for everyone who rushes in to laud someone as a genius, another person is just a few steps behind convincing us that this so-called genius is a fraud. So, what was I supposed to do when confronted with The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary about so-called musical genius Daniel Johnston? Now, I know a decent amount about music, but there are huge gaps in my knowledge, and Daniel Johnston was in one of those gaps. I had never even heard of the guy. If there wasn’t so much praise for the film itself (including a Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance), there would be no incentive for me to see the film. However, I must admit, after seeing the film, I am ready to call Daniel Johnston a genius, even though I do not particularly like his music or art.
Daniel Johnston is a musician who has a huge underground following. He has been producing his own music since the 1980s, when he was in his 20s living in Austin, Texas, even designing the album covers. His music and artwork garnered many fans, including Kurt Cobain, who frequently wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt. He had appeared on MTV and even recorded an album for Atlantic records. As I said earlier, I can recognize the unique qualities in Johnston’s music and art that other people admire, even though it’s not my personal taste. But, more importantly, his life makes for a fascinating film.
Another word that gets thrown around a lot is “crazy.” It’s a word that is used so casually that it has almost lost all meaning. This film explores the full depths of Daniel Johnston’s brand of crazy. Now, I am talking about full-blown genuine mental institution manic depressive crazy here. I am talking about the kind of crazy that causes plane crashes and makes his family call the police for fear on their own lives.
So, what the documentary explores is the area where “genius” meets “crazy.” Is one the result of the other? Are they inextricably linked? The film does give some credence to this theory, as the years where Daniel Johnston was the most heavily medicated were the years where he was the least productive.
One thing that makes this documentary so fascinating is the fact that Daniel Johnston has spent most of his life documenting his own struggles on audio tapes. The film, with no conventional “narrator” lets Johnston’s tapes speak for themselves, chronicling some of the most troubling moments in his life. We also hear about these incidents from the perspectives of his friends and family. Curiously absent from the film is Daniel Johnston, in his present form. Daniel Johnston is alive, well, and still making music. And he obviously knew this documentary was being made and participated in this production. However, he is rarely interviewed. However, this allows us to concentrate on Johnston’s past thoughts and feelings, without the imprecise filters of time or memory.
Director Jeff Feurzeig makes some interesting and surreal moves on this documentary, which keeps the viewer off-kilter. In one scene, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers (who knew Johnston in Austin) is interviewed while going to the dentist. Many scenes will focus on objects and images that are only tangentially related to the discussion at hand.
Religion fuels a lot of Daniel Johnston’s work. Daniel Johnston, at various parts of the movie, fears the devil and during other parts, serves as a vessel for the devil. Religion is one of the crazy obsessions that inhabits Johnston’s mind, along with comic books (especially Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost) and the Beatles. In Johnston’s mind, all these things are equal and inseparable. This is part of Johnston’s genius. It is not just kitsch to him, but he seems to genuinely believe in the equality of all culture, both high and low. It is that very sensibility that drives both his music and art, and makes it unpretentious and genuine.
But even with all the other accomplishments of the movie, the most amazing thing is how the movie has managed to humanize Johnston. We cannot help but like him. Even when he does things that are destructive and crazy, we still root for him. Again, this goes back to the debate about where “genius” meets “crazy,” a debate as old as the very concept of the insane artist. While the film does not provide concrete answers, we are left with plenty of fascinating questions. Are we rooting for Johnston because he is a likable person? Or because he is a human being? Or are we rooting for him because he has a talent and something to say, and it would be a shame if no one knew about it? If someone has enough “genius,” do we ignore the “crazy”?