Change Location × Worldwide

    Recent Locations

      The Devil and Daniel Johnston Review

      The Devil and Daniel Johnston poster

      The Devil and Daniel Johnston

      Allison Benedikt, Chicago Tribune

      After his first tab of acid, dosed backstage at a 1986 Butthole Surfers show in New York, the scrawny, scruffy and wide-eyed singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston smacked his manager with a pipe, putting him in the hospital; ran away to New Jersey; sent members of Sonic Youth on a wild goose chase after him; spent 24 hours in Bellevue; was released mistakenly due to a clerical error; and opened at CBGB that night.

      "In terms of creating a legend," says ex-girlfriend Kathy McCarty in Jeff Feuerzeig's excellent documentary, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," "he's done absolutely everything right."

      Feuerzeig, who makes wise and liberal use of Johnston's home Super 8 films and tape diaries, has crafted a deeply disturbing yet disarming look at one remarkable artist and the age-old relationship between creativity and insanity.

      First things first: I lied. Daniel Johnston is not a remarkable artist. Though Feuerzeig does his best to puff up Johnston's importance and influence - just as another great doc about music and madness, "Dig!," did for its subject, the Brian Jonestown Massacre - the childlike singer's nasally, off-key warble, simpleton lyrics and limited guitar repertoire are pretty unimpressive, no matter how much love he gets from arbiters of cool such as Matt Groening, Yo La Tengo and Thurston Moore.

      Kurt Cobain didn't wear a Daniel Johnston T-shirt to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards because Johnston's songs about Casper the Friendly Ghost blew his mind. He wore the beat-up old shirt because Johnston was a symbol, a so-so musician whose insanity made him seem pure. Pure like Van Gogh. Pure like Warhol. And in art, purity equals greatness.

      Raised as the spiritual outsider in a conservative Christian family, the shy and insecure Johnston spent his childhood in the basement, drawing, recording and fixating on John Lennon and a woman named Laurie, the muse behind much of his work, including the perfectly titled cassettes "Songs of Pain" and "More Songs of Pain." After running off to join a traveling carnival and landing in Austin, Texas, Johnston's obsessions turned to the devil, kicking off a decades-long and exhausting series of manic highs and dark lows.

      He worked at McDonald's for much of his time in Austin, and after a brief appearance on MTV became a local celebrity, signing autographs and taking business meetings in the Golden Arches' plastic booths. The music scene embraced Johnston and his tapes "Hi, How Are You?" and "Yip/Jump Music," both recorded on a $59 Sanyo boombox. (Without the means to dub, Johnston rerecorded the tapes every time someone requested a copy.) He was even named Austin's singer-songwriter of the year, despite his near inability to play the guitar.

      But for each achievement, there was deep, dark mental anguish, troubles that couldn't be attributed to circumstance. Johnston was in and out of mental hospitals, putting lives in danger and making most everyone around him - from A&R reps to fans to family - either uncomfortable with his constant proselytizing or just plain scared. Feuerzeig recounts it all with clear-eyed candor, turning to Johnston's battered friends and family for insight and empathy and to Johnston's tapes and drawings for an inside look at his illness.

      He weaves together interviews with Johnston's beleaguered manager, his childhood best friend and Austin Chronicle editor and Johnston supporter Louis Black, but it's the narrative told by Johnston's now-elderly parents and how they relate to their son's lifelong battle with manic depression that cuts through.

      "Everyone loves the idea of the crazy artist," newspaperman Black says at one point, and he's right. Now 42, with a gut and mop of gray hair to prove it, Johnston's legend has only grown, and he's currently a successful artist on the gallery circuit and bona fide indie hero. But he's a ghost of his former self and still lives with his parents, good souls who never had the luxury to romanticize their son's creative demons or worship him for his so-called artistic purity. They're too busy trying to keep him alive, on the right meds, and worried, even fearful, about how he will survive when they're gone.

      With humor, honesty and awe, Feuerzeig's portrait may love Daniel Johnston, but it won't give his parents much hope.

      "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

      Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig; photographed by Fortunato Procopio; edited by Tyler Hubby; produced by Henry Rosenthal. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, April 14. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, drug content, and language including a sexual reference).

      Quick movie browse