Your fondness for — not to say tolerance of — The Devil and Daniel Johnston will probably depend on how deeply you embrace grunge rock and the concept that all artists are insane. Its subject/hero Daniel Johnston is first seen being introduced at a concert as the “greatest singer-songwriter alive today,” an appellation that filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig obviously subscribes to in this paean to the artist as a tortured genius. I can’t deny that Johnston has the tortured part down pat. It’s the genius part I’m having trouble accepting.
Musically speaking, Johnston’s work remained stubbornly unimpressive to me throughout the film, even if it has attracted the attention of Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam and Beck — and led to him being tagged as “the greatest living songwriter” by Kurt Cobain. Cobain, in fact, seems largely responsible for having propelled Johnston to cult status not by praising his music, but by wearing — and being photographed in — a Daniel Johnston T-shirt for at least several weeks. (If it was the same shirt all that time, it gives new meaning to the term “grunge.”)
This raises the question — one of many that the film simply ignores — of whether or not the interest generated has as much to do with Johnston as it has to do with wanting to be cool because of Cobain’s apparent interest. In any case, viewing it from outside the cult of Daniel Johnston, I was left perplexed by the appeal of the man’s work. And the enthusiasts who likened it to the Beatles and Bob Dylan were not only unpersuasive, they seemed as delusional as Johnston himself.
None of this is to say that I found the film uninteresting. On the contrary, as a study of Johnston as a person, it is often compelling. Feuerzeig was immensely lucky in that Johnston seems to have obsessively chronicled his own life from junior high school on. This afforded the filmmaker copious material from which to work. Some of this is fascinating.
Of particular note — though Feuerzeig makes little of it — are Johnston’s youthful attempts at filmmaking. Not only are the films telling in what they reveal of his strangely evolving worldview, but they show a remarkably assured — and apparently inherent — grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking. I’ve seen things from film school students that weren’t half so accomplished or sophisticated. A good deal of the material is disturbing and occasionally heartbreaking — especially the cassette tapes that capture early fights with his mother and later his incoherent rants about Satan.
As the film chronicles his life — from his fundamentalist Christian upbringing to his tentative rebellion to his attempts at making his mark on the art and music world to his descent into drugs and deepening mental instability — the portrait of a sometimes likable, sometimes frightening, invariably difficult person emerges. On that level, The Devil and Daniel Johnston generally succeeds.
It fails, however, in its desire to lionize his talent. It also fails because it never questions that talent or the driving force behind it or the motives of those who promote Johnston. When it’s revealed late in the film that, several days before a performance, Johnston will stop taking the medication that allows him to function in a more or less rational manner, two questions arise. Are the fans there to witness a performance, or are they there for the spectacle of a man on the verge of a breakdown? Further, does Johnston himself realize this aspect of his performing on some level? Feuerzeig either doesn’t recognize these questions (in which case he’s remarkably credulous), or he pretends not to (in which case he’s remarkably dishonest). Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, and language including a sexual reference.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke