Daniel Johnston is a manic-depressive genius singer/songwriter/artist, revealed in this portrait of madness, creativity and love. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a stunning portrait of a musical and artistic genius who n... more »early slipped away. Director Jeff Feurzeig exquisitely depicts a perfect example of brilliance and madness going hand in hand with subject Daniel Johnston. As an artist suffering from manic depression with delusions of grandeur, Daniel Johnston?s wild fluctuations, numerous downward spirals, and periodic respites are exposed in this deeply moving documentary.« less
Jeff V. (burielofmel) from HARRIMAN, TN Reviewed on 3/12/2008...
This is a great documentary. I've watched it about half a dozen times. It never gets old. Daniel is an artist, musician with a mental illness. An amazing amount of his life has been documented through home movies and photos and Audio tapes. You'll be astounded at just how much of the life of Daniel and his family had been documented here. If you have an interest in outsider art, strange music, true stories of mental illness of simply want to sneak a peak into an unusual life, then give this film a try.
2 of 4 member(s) found this review helpful.
One of the most remarkable and moving documentaries I have e
Robert Moore | Chicago, IL USA | 07/13/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I saw this film early last spring and have been perplexed why it never showed up on Amazon's list of movies that were appearing in theaters. I found this frustrating because this is one of my favorite movies of 2006 so far and one of my favorite documentaries concerning a musical figure.
Daniel Johnston is widely known as one of the great untutored songwriters in America, extremely raw and unsophisticated while compelling and original at the same time. He is also known as an artist who has had to struggle for most of his adult life with severe mental illness. No documentary ever made allows such access to a person's psyche as this one does. Why? Beginning as a young teen Johnston began recording his own life on video and tape. There are literally thousands of cassettes that provide an unprecedented portrait of Johnston. He not only recorded his own thoughts, but would secretly tape conversations with others. It is entirely possible that we have a larger record of Johnston's life than any other public person. Drawing on these vast materials and given complete access to them by Johnston and his parents, director Jeff Feuerzeig has assembled a comprehensive, compassionate, yet disturbing portrait of a fascinating individual. The opening credits display these disturbing words by Johnston: "There is a devil, and he knows my name."
The film tells Johnston's story from his early teens to his move to Austin, Texas in his early twenties where he suffered his first mental breakdown, on to adulthood and his ongoing struggle with severe mental illness. Although he quotes his own conditions from an earlier edition of the DSM, Johnston seems to struggle with a number of psychological problems, including severe bipolarity, narcissism, and schizophrenia. He was raised in a strongly religious fundamentalist household, but while the strong religiosity found there helped shape the nature of his future mental problems (he constantly frames the world in demonic terms, as a struggle between God and the devil), they do not seem to be the direct cause. Whatever propensities he had as a teen were brought to the surface by heavy drug use while in Austin, Texas. He has never really been healthy since that first breakdown, though he has often been able to record and perform.
Throughout the narrative of his life are snippets from various cassettes. He truly has provided the soundtrack of his own life. For instance, in an ill-fated trip to New York to record with the aide of members of Sonic Youth he was arrested for defacing the Statue of Liberty with religious symbols. He was secretly taping this as well as arguments he had with people while walking on sidewalks in New York. There is a "You are there" feeling with this film quite unlike anything else I've ever seen. The film recounts many harrowing incidents in his life, none scarier than the time after appearing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin when he seized the controls of his father's plane and sent it into an uncontrolled dive. His father was able to regain control of the plane only at the last second to enable a controlled crash landing in a forest. Miraculously, they escaped with only minor injuries.
The film details Johnston's emergence as an alternative rock icon, helped in large part by Kurt Cobain's constant wearing of a Johnston T-shirt over the last few years of his life. People have continued to discover his music, though it must be confessed that it is very much an acquired taste. Johnston is at best amateurish in both his guitar playing and keyboard work, and his singing is raw and unpolished. The songs themselves are primitive and sometimes feel unfinished. Nonetheless, there is an undeniable appeal in many of the songs, and emotional honesty that is bereft of artifice. Many will prefer the raw recordings by Johnston himself, though some might like more the versions of his songs recorded by his friend (and very briefly girlfriend) Kathy McCarty, DEAD DOG'S EYEBALL: THE SONGS OF DANIEL JOHNSTON. She appears prominently in the documentary and remains a part of his life, having married his oldest friend.
Overall the tone of the film is somewhat despondent tempered with hope. Johnston, though irredeemably self-obsessed, is oddly likable. And all in all, one can't help but think that given the severity of his problems, his life has turned out better than perhaps anyone else in his condition. His parents, though he criticized them for their religious obsessions early in his life, are unquestionably profoundly caring. Instead of having Daniel in an institution, they have cared for him themselves, forcing him to take his meds and enabling him to have a rich if demanding life. Unfortunately, they are both around eighty and there is great concern for what will happen to Johnston as they age. Although Johnston is best known as a musician, he has never made much money through his music. He has, however, established quite a reputation as an untutored artist, and his drawings now fetch substantial amounts of money. His parents have been putting the money into a trust fund for him. Their goal has been to provide him with a house and sufficient funds to pay for nursing care for the remainder of his life. As long as he takes his very large number of meds he is semi-functional. Thanks to his art, it now appears that there will be enough money to take care of his needs.
Although I saw this in the theater I am very much looking forward to getting the DVD. Many of Johnston's songs deal with love and heartbreak, and most of these concern a woman he met in college and fell hopelessly in love with. This was, however, an unrequited love, but it nevertheless provided the impetus for his songwriting. In an interview with the director following the preview, Feuerzeig revealed that after one of Johnston's concerts he saw her for the first time in over twenty years. They caught this on tape and it will appear as an extra on the DVD.
I give this disc my strongest possible recommendation. You will never see a documentary that delves so deeply into one person's life as does this one. As sad and disturbing as most of it is, it nonetheless ends as happily as it is possible for someone with the world of troubles afflicting Johnston."
The Devil Made Him Do It...Thank Goodness!
Dennis C. Daniel | Central Islip, NY | 08/04/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Art has always been inspired by beauty because art is the greatest frame of mind to express a certain feeling." Daniel Johnston
One of the most wonderful things about being alive is; you learn something new everyday. Entire worlds exist out there that you have no clue about one day, and the next, you kind find yourself entrenched, imbedded, absorbed and overwhelmed within its confines. Such is the situation you may find yourself in after experiencing THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, one of the most heartfelt, absorbing and amazing documentaries I have ever seen. Since seeing it, I have entered the world of Daniel Johnston and have a feeling I may never truly leave.
I was first drawn to this film by an image...a full-page ad for the movie in The Village Voice. It consisted of a primitively drawn cartoon showing a singer, guitar in hand, with his head sliced open to the elements in a clean circular cut, burst of air shooting out, performing in the center of a crowd filled with similar head-sliced-open look-alikes, all watching his performance, arms raised in concert-goer glee. Little did I know that this startling graphic screaming at me would be the first of many hundreds of like-minded images that would dance before my eyes, mind and heart (not to mention my ears) in wondrous, magical ways I almost forgot where possible.
The quizzy lay before me, begging an answer. "Who in the hell is this Daniel Johnston?" If you are like me, by the time you find out, your perceptions may never be the same about all the ingredients that constitute art, life, love, heaven, hell, right, wrong and...madness.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON tells the true story of a man who is filled with so much joy, so much life, so much talent, so much energy, so much unbridled creative spark and imagination...that he literally and figuratively loses his mind trying to share it all with us. The process and the pain involved in his need to express his feelings are so intense, dangerous and utterly devastating, that his very life and sanity must always be in a state of flux in order for us, his audience, to receive the blessings and gifts of his immense genius.
There is no denying that the connections between art, genius and mental illness have always been there...always been fascinating...but never been fully explained or understood. Let's face it, try as we might, no one, be they relative, lover, scientist or doctor, can ever be inside these people as they go through the process that leads to their creations. What truly makes those synapses fire is still a mystery. It is the mystery that makes them fascinating. We can now add Daniel Johnston to the list.
When Daniel was a young boy, his folks knew right away that he was "different." This difference manifested itself in all kinds of artistic endeavors bursting with creativity; like making short Super 8 films, learning, writing and playing music, drawing and performing. Daniel, like so many great artists, began his journey by absorbing all that he loved (The Beatles, Cartoons, Comic Books) and then finding ways to regurgitate it out in a form he could call his own. His folks actually worried about what Daniel would contribute to society since he seemed more obsessed with his creative projects than he was with school, church, or chores. For some teenagers, this is a normal path that leads to growth in other areas. For Daniel, it was his M.O. 24/7 365. In short, it was his life.
What neither Daniel nor his parents knew was that a horrible genetic tick, bi-polar disorder, would eventually rear its ugly head and cause Daniel, his family, and his friends...to truly suffer for his art.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON is the story of Daniel's artistic journey through creative joy and madness. Through a combination of current footage, vintage performances, home movies, and dozens of recorded audiotapes from Daniel's life, director Jeff Feuerzeig brilliantly allows us to become enmeshed in Daniel's inner and outer world. A world where one is perpetually exposed to the brilliant ramblings of man/child in a state of wonder about it all. I just cannot begin to tell you how struck I was by this film and its subject. The fact that I had never heard of him before makes me wonder about all the other fabulous things out there that I'm totally clueless of.
What is so striking...so beautiful...is the purity of Daniel's creative soul. As much as he wants to "be famous" he goes about it in a way that under normal circumstances would never have seen the light of a mass audience. For many years, he used to perform his songs by recording them live on to a little cassette recorder (what they call "low-fi" recording) and then he'd hand out his "albums" to just about everyone he met. The melodies, lyrics and exuberant performances on these cassettes are so touching and heartfelt, that you will ache with melancholy and wonder as you listen. Daniel's songs...from unrequited love ballads to life-affirming statements of pure joy are undeniably works of genius. It is beyond stupefying that these mini-masterpieces are being created by this kid alone in his room or garage with a little cassette recorder, accompanied by primitive chord organ, piano or guitar playing...and all while he slowly is going mad.
In the mid-eighties, by a combination of luck and determination, Daniel found himself in the right place at the right time and received some exposure on MTV's The Cutting Edge. It was here that he tasted his first bite of success and recognition. It was also here that he began his descent. We see Daniel go from a thin, spunky kid to an overweight (he became HUGE) gray-haired, older beyond his years, medically challenged, bi-polar mess. The contrast is striking.
The film is peppered with testimony from supportive friends (each with fascinating Daniel stories to tell) and his loving parents, brother and sisters, which allows us to get a glimpse of what it must be like to have one such as Daniel in your midst. While his personal history makes for a fascinating story, it is Daniel's art...comprised of his poetic songs and his drawings that tell their own fascinating story. A story that is both a heartbreaking statement about the sorrows of mental illness and a triumphant celebration of how obstacles, no matter how difficult, can be overcome.
Now in his mid 40s, Daniel Johnston still struggles with his demons, but thanks to better medication, he is now able to be out and about much more often, traveling, and performing. He is also actively producing international exhibits where he continues to sell his vibrant and intimate sketches.
He is a beloved cult figure, whose work is recognized for its brilliance by some of the most well-know artists of our time. (Author's Note: What is truly striking is when you hear his work performed by other artists. I did this by downloading the album THE LATE GREAT DANIEL JOHNSTON off itunes, where you get to hear both Daniel's original versions of his songs and the covered versions. I highly HIGHLY recommend doing this!) He has recorded over ten full length albums, and his supporters have included Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who was often seen wearing a Daniel Johnston t shirt, Matt Groening, The Butthole Suffers, Sonic Youth, noted Minutemen/FIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Beck, The Flaming Lips, and, hopefully do to this film, an ever-growing international audience.
From kid in his room singing alone into a cassette player, to renowned artist whose expressions have earned him worldwide recognition and critical praise, the story of Daniel Johnston is one that will move you in ways you never thought possible and open up entire new avenues of joy and wonder as you discover more and more about him and his unique world.
And to think, a few weeks ago, I'd never even heard of the guy. Isn't life wonderful?"
Inspiring, Intriguing, Scary, and Heartbreaking--and Back to
Janet Boyer | Pennsylvania | 09/25/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
""I had lost my mind. I lost my head for a while was off my rocker outta line, outta wack. See I had this tiny crack in my head That slowly split open and my brain snoozed out, Lyin' on the sidewalk and I didn't even know it. I had lost my mind." --I Had Lost My Mind by Daniel Johnston
I stumbled onto Daniel Johnston's brilliance quite by accident. Last week, I was watching a repeat of the Top 40 Metal Songs on VH1 Classics. Henry Rollins was one of the featured commentators, and my husband mentioned that he had a TV show--and what a fascinating character Rollins was.
So I happened to be channel surfing, and came across Rollins' show on IFC (he was interviewing Billy Bob Thornton). At the end of the show, some guy named Daniel Johnston comes on. At first, we didn't know if he was "for real" or if it was a gag. He warbled a folksy song with his eyes shut (or downcast)--I had wondered if he was blind. We soon became intrigued--especially with the clever lyrics.
I said to my husband "Boy, he reminds me of Kurt Cobain. I bet Cobain would have been inspired by Daniel." The interesting thing is that, unbeknownst to me, Cobain not only knew who Daniel was, but often wore a T shirt featuring one of Daniel's drawings! ("Hi, how are you?")
By the end of his rambling, genuinely-felt song, we wanted to know more. My husband did an internet search, and found out who Daniel Johnston was. He also found out that a DVD was coming out about Daniel; I put it on my Netflix queue.
We just finished watching the DVD, and it was AMAZING. I love documentaries that are character studies, but The Devil and Daniel Johnston was so much more than that. Rather than giving you mere biographical details about the guy (you can find those for yourself), I'll tell you what impressed me about this man and this film.
I was (not so) surprised to find that Daniel's parents are fundamentalist Christians, and that his Mom constantly harangued him about being "lazy" and producing "devil cartoons". Her rejection of his interests and talents--trying to force this round peg in a middle-class-American-fundie-square hole--plus her demonizing of his self-expression no doubt contributed to Daniel's paranoia about satan and demons.
I was amazed at how utterly creative Daniel was/is; the short films he produced as a teen--especially his editing talents!--were remarkable.
While the creative Daniel is inspiring, we soon get a glimpse into an almost child-like world view--one that quickly unravels into self-destructive behaviors...not to mention violent tendencies.
It was downright scary watching Daniel in his mid-30's, especially after going off his meds and doing things like hitting his manager in the head with a lead pipe, almost crashing a plane he was on and ranting at his audience about demon possession, the divinity of the number 7, and other paranoid, fundamentalist mumbo jumbo. Watching the self-sabotage and mental illness made me cover my eyes at times--no lie. It was painful.
But then, after 5 years in a mental institution Daniel gets the correct meds--and begins the path of (some sort of) normalcy.
The especially sad part of this documentary wasn't Daniel's unrequited love for Laurie (a girl he met in college); it was the utter devotion of his manager, Jeff Tartakov, who diligently worked on Daniel's behalf even when Daniel was locked up. Daniel fired Jeff at the cusp of a lucrative record deal (Elektra and Atlantic were in a bidding war), and Daniel concluded that Elektra was "demonic" because Metallica was on their label. Under a new manager, Daniel signs with Atlantic, selling only well-under 10,000 copies.
Unlike what is listed here on Amazon (and what a reviewer copy and pasted from Amazon's description), the Special Features are only Deleted Scenes, personal recordings of Daniel Johnston, producer commentary, and Daniel's (moving) reunion with Laurie. (Incidentally, she wasn't his "sweetheat" and they met in college, not High School.)
Also showcased in this documentary is Daniel's art (which his former manager snatched up any chance he got, even when he wasn't working for Daniel; talk about loyal!). Like his music, Daniel's art gives us a glimpse into his psyche: brilliant, tortured, unique and child-like. From "Silver Sufferer" to Casper, Captain America to the man who lost his mind--Daniel's art is sometimes like a trainwreck...you just can't look away.
If you're inspired by genius, "tortured" artists, and individuals who blaze a fiery trail just be "being"--you'll likely love this incredible documentary.
You can see Daniel's performance on IFC at: http://henryrollins.ifc.com/episodes/guide.jsp?episode_id=0014
Daniel's website is at http://www.hihowareyou.com/ His music is produced by Stress Records--a label Jeff Tartakov created expressly for the disemination of Daniel's wonderful music."
The Message, My Friend, Is Twistin' In The Wind
David R. Moffatt | Eveleth, MN USA | 06/22/2007
(2 out of 5 stars)
"Viewed as a deliberately clumsy parody (a la the Rutles) of an utterly untalented version of Bob Dylan, this movie almost works as a comedy.
Seen as the story of a man attempting to overcome serious mental illness despite repeated obstacles, it's not bad, by turns poignant and grimly amusing.
As the hideously pretentious dissection of the "undiscovered genius" Daniel Johnston is claimed to be, this film is nothing but 110 minutes documenting the long, deliberate exploitation of a deluded, pitiful, tortured human being. When we see him take a guitar onto the stage during a concert despite the fact that he does not know how to play, we should get it. The concert audience doesn't--they give him a standing ovation. When we see him on and off stage with what appear to be alcoholic beverages near at hand, and are informed that Johnston often discontinued his medications before performances "to improve them" (leading one to wonder about both the medications and Johnston's handler), we should get it. And after nearly two hours of being beaten over the head with a shovel by Johnston's art (most of which resembles student notebook doodles) and his music (which only occasionally approaches garage band standards and is filled with delusional ramblings, often clearly originating with parents who tried to force fundamentalism on him), we should get it. A lengthy concluding scene in which a medication-bloated Johnston capers in a drool-stained t-shirt to the sound of one of his own songs should get it for us.
The artist has no clothes. How the film makers could have possibly not "gotten it" seems almost beyond comprehension. In light of the significant amount of money being made by various people from Johnson's work, that they apparently do not hardly seems an innocent mistake. One begins to wonder if promoters will start trolling the art therapy sessions at state hospitals in search of the next "genius" to immortalize on film. No doubt there are others, like Johnston, who will be happy to produce, so long as their every scribbling is greeted as a work of genius.
Johnston seems a decent man, tormented by a disease of which there is far too little understanding and far too little help. If I took anything away from this film, it is the hope that he will find peace, and that he will be, as he deserves to be, left alone, to dream the more pleasant of his demented dreams. He has my sympathy. The filmmakers do not."
Time flies when you're having fun...
G. HIGGINS | 08/23/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Somewhere in the last two decades, films about rock became indistinguishable from documentaries made for public television, and that is no compliment. Perhaps the music described lacked quality, or the subjects portrayed weren't terribly compelling. Where the crying need for amanuenses, explicators, authorities, critics, chroniclers, narrators and the talking heads all saying so little has arisen is a mystery, but it nauseates. One often longs for a return to the time where the film stock furnished all the explanation necessary...Pennebaker or the Maysles for example. However, the many reels of paid footage, expertly shot, are lacking in surveys of the Ramones, of Johnston, of garageland and Geek USA. In their place we have interlocutors---armchair historians guiding us through a story like any D-Day skirmish, peppered liberally with first-hand accounts from the I-Was-Theres.
Jeff Feuerzeig himself has a solid track record, having worked in videos and documentaries for years. He directed the film Half-Japanese: The Band That Would Be King and incidentally produced one of the best records of the 90's: a haunting, mysterious debut by the young Lys Guillorn, long unreleased, that was also the late Robert Quine's last session. He wrote and produced an incisive work on the jazz vocalese master Jon Hendricks. Feuerzeig's not the problem; Daniel Johnston is. Devil is an honorable attempt at conveying him.
In the early 80's, Austin had no train station. Its main stop was just a small Amtrak kiosk unlike the majestic structures of San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, and lacking their forbidding scale. The capital was distinct from the rest of Texas cities, filled with individuals matching another definition of Texan: cool, contemplative, bohemian, often sporting large eyewear. This was the Texas Daniel Johnston found and, as an outsider, would help define.
The "outsider" term, as cast by the Chusids of the music world, is fraught with problems, prone to ugly myths collapsing in on themselves. Since The Devil and Daniel Johnston focuses far more on his music than his art, we find Austin's affectionate embrace of the Savant-Makes-Good to be the picture's locus and Johnston's career high point. His unraveling, and the long dispassionate account of it, forms the substance of this disturbing film.
Johnston is no genius, far from it. His work is marked by simplistic repetitions and formal gimmicks. Musically, for all the manic volume of output, his yield is meager. He has a number of lovely songs, of brutally forthright compositions--"Fate Will Get Done" and "Walking the Cow" are fine contradictory examples--but there remain "outsider" artists, before him and since, possessed of the ability to truly destroy worlds. Of late the resurgence of interest in the incendiary force of nature that is Ghedalia Tazartes (not a Texan, not even American, and lacking t-shirt distribution..quelle horreur) is one example of dozens. As for inspiration, there is a wide gulf between intermittent flashes and all-consuming effulgence, and I wager his legion of defenders who might make their way through a Johnston box set would be winnowed down mightily five discs or so in.
If Kurt Cobain would call Johnston "the greatest living songwriter," one should recall context and the late guitarist's tireless promotion of everyone he knew...his two favorites were Shonen Knife and the Vaselines--not the least for being lovely, technically sloppy, and not American. Comparisons to Robert Johnson, however, are nothing short of idiotic. Louis Black and the other sycophants need not be detailed here.
Johnston devolves from a lovable kid with issues into an ugly manipulator early on, and his force of personality draws in so many of the bespectacled bohos and jazzbos mentioned above, Texan or otherwise--Jeff Tartakov, Steve Shelley, Jad Fair, and the truly wonderful Kathy McCarty, among so many other kind and decent people cast into the turbulence of his wake. His long-suffering parents and their testimonies are the most poignant of all. On a personal level I found Fred Wiseman's Titicut Follies less upsetting than The Devil and Daniel Johnston...the subject is a vortex...prone to eliciting contempt. "