Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
So many documentaries are on the market today that any effort seeking a wide audience must have a highly interesting subject and a wealth of unique visuals. The Devil and Daniel Johnston has both in the unusual singer-songwriter-artist Daniel Johnston. A manic-depressive obsessed with battling Satan, Daniel has been fighting institutionalization most of his adult life. A star of early MTV and a cult figure lionized by superstar rockers, he's considered a genius as a songwriter and his art is displayed at galleries and presentations worldwide. Even better for director Jeff Feuerzeig, Daniel documented his entire life on innumerable audiocassettes, home movies and videotapes. He's a weird character with a compelling story: An artistic visionary that on a good day is only marginally in control of his own mind.
Home videos, self-made audio diaries and interview testimony chart the life of Daniel Johnston, who grew up in a God-fearing West Virginia family. Different from the rest of his brothers and sisters, Daniel concentrates on strange drawings, offbeat music and home movie projects. His parents lobby to steer him on a more conventional path, but Daniel goes his own strange way. He doesn't fit in at college and is sent to live with relatives in another state. There he meets Laurie, a girl he falls madly in love with. She marries another fellow and Daniel runs away with a carnival, ending up living with a sister in Texas. He holds down a job at McDonald's although he has difficulty doing any task but clearing tables. Daniel gives away cassettes of his songs, which impress local music critics and win him a place with a band. Although he can barely play a guitar and his singing sometimes suggests a parody of Andy Kaufman, Daniel's music gains a popular following that translates to notoriety on the new MTV network. A potential new star is born, but just as Daniel nears real success he succumbs to his mental illness and exhibits dangerous and unpredictable behavior. He spends the next few years in and out of institutions while his parents and music managers try to help him find peace in his music. His unusual drawings become popular with mainstream rock performers but he proves unable to take responsibility for himself. Managed by his aging parents, Daniel gives concerts and attends showings of his artwork.
Here's a film to make every teenaged art / music / film wannabe reassess their goals and talents. This case of repressed upbringing is not a theory, as we can see and hear all of the evidence: Young Daniel Johnston seemingly recorded everything in his life in the conviction that he would someday be famous. Daniel starts as a spirited oddball, a fun-loving kid brimming with creativity. We're shown his precocious home movies and see how he made a name for himself as the school 'art kid', drawing elaborate cartoons and gags for his classmates and using his movie camera to express his adoration for Laurie, a cute college girl. Incapable of expressing his intense juvenile crush in words, Daniel redirects his pain and longing into songs and poems. His eccentricity begins to show clear signs of a personality disorder. He has trouble assuming the simplest responsibilities and is given to impulsive and erratic behavior. Later in Texas, a girl that Daniel sings with must treat him like a child to disabuse him of the notion that they're engaged.
Daniel's audiotapes document Mrs. Johnston's screaming harangues, proving that they really happened. Daniel ignores his parents' incessant Old Testament sermons, an oppressive weight that eventually boomerangs into religious mania. When Daniel's behavior becomes paranoid, obscure Bible rants dominate his performances. Anybody attempting to help or guide him is identified as an agent of Satan. Daniel frightens an old woman so badly that she leaps from a second floor window. He's arrested and institutionalized for months. Free again, Daniel goes to New York but almost immediately succumbs to paranoid fantasies. Fearing that he'll be sent back home, he runs away from his friends and walks to New Jersey.
The unpredictable Daniel goes berserk in his father's light plane, forcing a crash landing His parents stick by him, eventually becoming his caretakers. Daniel fires his faithful and supportive manager, and any vestige of a conventional music career soon disappears.
With so much audio-visual documentation available, director Feuerzeig's documentary plays like a straight narrative. The beautifully shot new material visits old locations as we hear Daniel's preserved voice or that of his mother or an old friend describing past events. Daniel's voice changes over the years as he evolves from a peppy kid to an over-weight and unkempt 45 year-old. We chart his artwork from high school onward. They start as doodles around a theme -- eyeballs, a man with his brain missing -- and often involve his favorite heroes Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Daniel's style has barely changed in twenty-five years but like his music, the pictures take on a kind of primitive purity. Collectors find his personality fascinating. Some of Daniel's strange songs have a strong poetic appeal, especially the earlier ones: Unbound emotions and raw insights. On the other hand, the hip 'glamour' of mental illness appears to be what attracted fans like the late Kurt Cobain to Daniel's music.
Feuerzeig's portrait of Daniel Johnston ends on a strange note. Daniel's now-elderly parents have worked out a system that keeps his extremes in check, but they have to do everything for him. They know they won't be around all that much longer. Who will provide the customized support Daniel needs so badly?
Sony's DVD of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fine encoding of this HD docu. The new interviews and footage look splendid and the 'background' Super-8 and home video material is carefully transferred, even though much of the old film is covered with tiny algae growth. The footage of Laurie, the lifelong girl of Daniel's dreams, is particularly good.
The disc extras give The Devil and Daniel Johnston a second, even more satisfying ending. One unused piece of video shows Daniel on an invitational trip to South Africa, where he plays King Kong in a short film. But the stunner is documentation from the film's premiere. The producers bring the real "Laurie" to see the show and Daniel meets her for the first time in 25 years. She greets him with warmth and affection, and handles his predictable reaction with gentle tolerance: "I never thought I'd see you again. Will you marry me?" It's very touching. Although Daniel is in a gentle stage of adjustment -- some people might describe it as a state of grace -- we understand completely that he's still definitely off-kilter.
Other extra material includes a director and producer commentary, sidebar galleries of Daniel Johnston movies and personal audio recordings, and footage from the Sundance World Premiere.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Devil and Daniel Johnston rates:
Supplements: Sundance World Premiere Featurette, Laurie and Daniel Reunion Featurette, Legendary WFMU Broadcast Featurette, Cinema of Daniel Johnston, Personal Movies of Daniel Johnston, Daniel's Audio Diaries, Personal recording of Daniel Johnston, Commentary with Director Jeff Feuerzeig and Producer Henry S. Rosenthal
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 11, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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