The Devil and Daniel Johnston Review
Daniel Johnston once recorded a song called I Met Roky Erickson with Jad Fair of Half Japanese. Normally, this wouldn't be considered anything out of the ordinary for Johnston, who's songs are often wistful but which touch on fantastical figures, but there's a strange relationship between Johnston and Erickson illustrated throughout this feature. In his book of essays on troubled rock stars, The Dark Stuff, Nick Kent met Roky Erickson, a somewhat legendary figure of sixties psychedelia, and found him touched by a dark madness. Erickson, though often lucid, spoke of the devil and how he had received messages from Satan, telling Kent that he had little doubt, based on what he had seen and heard, that the devil was as real as was Kent.
In one of the many pieces of archive footage that director Jeff Feuerzeig uses to build on his story of Daniel Johnston is a piece of Super 8 footage that shows an obviously tripping Johnston telling Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers about being contacted by the devil and how evil, which exists everywhere, must be fought. Much like Syd Barratt and Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston is one of those figures who really ought to have stayed away from drugs, particularly LSD. The young Johnston is a songwriter and sometime filmmaker and artist who recorded tapes of love songs inspired by his own romantic failures but which are touched by a skewed imagination that was fed on comic books, movies and The Beatles. His Speeding Motorcyle is a beautiful little song written about the moped that gave him an early taste for freedom while Do You Really Love Me, simple though it is, captures that doubt that we all have in the early stages of a relationship.
At least that was how Daniel Johnston's career as a musician began. His use of LSD, which damaged an already frail ego, blew apart Johnston's Christianity and saw him taking up songwriting arms against the devil. A songwriter with limitless amounts of creativity, Johnston's early years are a high of appearances on MTV, of gushing reviews in local newspapers, of a manager who lived to promote his client and of bands recording his material. But Johnston became increasingly unpredictable. He travelled to New York as a guest of Sonic Youth but wore out their welcome when he was found to have skipped recording sessions, moved out of his accommodation and began going missing for long periods of time. Sonic Youth attempted to get him to go back home but were left driving around New York in search of Johnston. Even when he was given a bus ticket home and was seen getting on the bus, he never actually left the city, eventually moving into a shelter for the homeless where his belongings were stolen and where he was assaulted several times. He was arrested for spray painting the Christian Ichthus symbol on the stairways inside the Statue Of Liberty and was later sectioned into a mental hospital. In one of the most heartbreaking moments in this film, Bill Johnston, Daniel's father, tearfully explains how the two of them went flying one afternoon and how Daniel switched off the engine, threw the key out of the window and deliberately crashed the plane. And whilst all of this was happening, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt at festivals, on photoshoots and on MTV, getting people to finally notice Johnston's music. Johnston, largely oblivious to all the attention, remained in hospital.
Much like the recent Gram Parsons' documentary, Fallen Angel, The Devil And Daniel Johnston is respectful when it could have been sensational. Equally, it gives as much time given to Johnston's family, with whom he still lives, as Parsons' was in Fallen Angel, revealing the kin behind the music, the whirlwind and madness of fame and the legend. In particular, what we hear from Johnston's father reveals a man who obviously loves his son and who, via his studying of Brian Wilson, has sought out a fellow artist who has proved that a period of relative stability can be found after many years of what we might describe as insanity. As was noted in my review of Fallen Angel, the presence of family in a rock documentary is a rare thing indeed. Never as handsome or as beautiful as the subject of the film, members of their family are like archive photographs of a rock star in ill-fitting clothes and a pudding-bowl haircut in that they tend to tarnish the golden glow about the rock star. However, they often reveal much more about the subject than their later accomplices and in The Devil And Daniel Johnston, his family suggest how difficult it must have been for the teenage Johnston to allay his creativity with a strict Christianity and how crippling his fear of the devil must have been. In the end, it also comes down to that Christian faith and how, from an unrequited love, his family have never given up on Daniel Johnston.
But it's also clear that the years director Jeff Feuerzeig spent on this project have paid off, with his long trawl through Johnston's home movies, notebooks and cassette tapes revealing something that no amount of interviews could, being an artist who was diagnosing himself as suffering from depression but was also quite unable to do anything about it. This helplessness is evident in what goes unsaid in these home movies and tapes, that Daniel Johnston, despite having fallen in love was unable see that love returned and so turned his art into paeans to love affairs that were only ever directed away from Johnston. It is, above all else, honest of Johnston to reveal so much in his music and despite Feuerzeig's approach looking scattershot at times, it's an apt summation of Johnston's life and art, which was, at its best, proof that a fragile mind was simply incapable of holding back a heart that big.
A good transfer from Tartan, The Devil And Daniel Johnston is anamorphically presented and has a selection of DTS and Dolby Digital tracks but, being a documentary, looks rather muted. The film's talking heads look much less interesting than the animated music videos and the Super 8 footage but the DVD does a decent job as regards all of it, revealing a certain softness but otherwise looking fine. The DTS track is very good, however, making some use of the rear channels but not a great deal, saving its best moments for the clarity with which Daniel Johnston's home movies have been presented and doing what it can for Johnston's cassette tapes, which reveal Johnston's own fears for his condition. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout, which are especially useful to understand Gibby Haynes being interviewed whilst being treated by his dentist.
Commentary: Director Jeff Feuerzeig and producer Henry Rosenthal have recorded a fascinating track that is not only concerned with the making of the film but also Johnston's life and art, expanding upon the film where they can with what knowledge they had of their subject but were unable to bring to the screen. However, despite being looking at Johnston in depth for as many years as they did, they avoid distancing their audience by realising that it's necessary to hold certain things back. Their commentary is much better for doing so, never leaving the audience drowning in facts about Johnston but continues to reveal much about the subject of their film.
Deleted Scenes: These are something of a mixed bag, not being what one might normally consider deleted scenes but rather entire documentary sequences of current and archive footage that, for whatever reason, didn't make the final cut. Hence, we have a lucid but tripping Daniel Johnston talking backstage with The Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes (12m21s) whilst in another sequence, Daniel and his father travel to Africa (5m14s) where they meet a filmmaker who requests that Daniel dress as King Kong as his father flies model biplanes towards him. There are six Deleted Scenes here, most of which are certainly worth viewing.
Featurettes: These aren't making-of features as such, more a couple of items that don't quite fit in anywhere else. For example, the Legendary WFMU Broadcast (15m09s) is an audio-only recording of Daniel Johnston appearing on that radio station playing music, performing sketches and taking telephone calls whilst Laurie And Daniel Reunion (7m48s) sees the two old friends get back together after a screening of this film, reunited at a party later that evening.
The Cinema Of Daniel Johnston: There are several interruptions in The Devil And Daniel Johnston when director Jeff Feuerzeig includes footage of home movies shot by Daniel to illustrate life in the Johnston family home. Three of these films are included here, being It Must Be Monday (4m05s), The Dangers Of Sled Riding!! (52s) and Gallery Of The Weird (34s).
Finally, there is the Original Theatrical Trailer (2m11s).