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'The Devil and Daniel Johnston'

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Sony Pictures Classics

The Devil's In The Details

Most documentaries mythologising (usually dead) rock'n'roll performers suffer for lack of insightful footage. When documentary filmmakers are forced to cobble together a picture from the testimony of talking heads and 'illustrative imagery' made to match the subject's music, the results're often dire.

Which is why, on its most basic level, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a success: great source material. Falling far from the rockumentary norms, filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig has been blessed with an utter goldmine of riches mined from the earliest days of the celebrated outside musician.

That this is due largely to Johnston's particular, personal idiosyncrasies only makes it so much more meaningful; the precious artifacts and the subject's own cataloguing of them feeding into what goes well beyond the regular portrait of a beloved rocker.


Johnston has long battled with a bipolar personality, and, if this film is about the discussion as whether that feeds or inhibits his so-called 'genius', then it's there from Johnston's very beginnings. As product of an insular obsession, Johnston constantly films himself on super-8 throughout his youth, and, once in his 20s, begins to tape-record almost every significant conversation. Rather than needing to go digging, Feuerzeig has a whole library of the Intimate Johnston at his fingertips.

The grainy home-movie footage and tinny, tape-hissing cassette recordings go hand-in-hand with Johnston's manic (/manic-depressive) music, which matches the prolific songsmith's passionate, unhinged, slightly ridiculous delivery with a painfully lo-fi fidelity. Recorded, to cassette, on a boombox in his parent's basement, Johnston's albums were, upon their eccentric release in the late-'80s and early-'90s, praised for their warped, hand-made charm, their lack of pretence, and that wonderful naïvety.

Hi, How Are You?

Johnston's celebrity admirers are many, and plenty of them turn up in The Devil and Daniel Johnston. But the picture is less interested in reveling in their presence, than it is establishing its notion that Johnston could never truly be amongst them; that he was never cut out for fame.

The fact that the subject's most famous moment came, in 1992, when Kurt Cobain —at that time the king of the pop-cultural world— wore one of Johnston's signature 'Hi, How Are You' t-shirts to the MTV VMAs seems poignant. Cobain, to this day, is rock'n'roll's great martyr, a saint who suffered for his genius. Johnston, whose first album was called Songs of Pain, is less glamorous, less charismatic, less suited for a life under scrutiny.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is not simply about Johnston's music, or even his strange rise to a kind of underground 'fame.' Rather, it's a portrait of a flawed man; a faltering savant whose musical output and battles with mental illness are all tangled up, to the point where it's impossible to extricate one from the other. Feuerzeig knows that standing on either side of the divide —Does crazy make genius? Or genius make crazy?— is a fool's game. His view is singular: Johnston is one human-being. Make of him what you will.

Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date: September 19, 2006

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