The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Movie Information

Score:

Genre: Documentary
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Starring: Daniel Johnston, Bill Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Louis Black, Jeff Tartakov
Rated: PG-13

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

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

4 thoughts on “The Devil and Daniel Johnston

  1. Jeff Escobar

    When a critic makes a proclamation, whether baying approval (“movie of the year!”) or snottily and cavalierly dismissing someone’s labor of love, usually we have to wait for “posterity” to arrive to really assess the accuity of that review. Luckily, a speedy trial and verdict has come back in the case of your review of The Devil and Daniel Johnston. His show at the Orange Peel last week was, by all accounts, moving and completely delightful. He took hold of the stage with touching artistry, despite extreme nervousness and instability. He fronted his highly proficient, rocking, Black Crowes type rock accompanyists, Hymns, confidently outrocking them, and with 1000 times more personality.

    1) This music is not “grunge rock” and Daniel pre-dates that trend by about a decade. “Lo-fi” certainly, but don’t let the Cobain connection throw you. You sound like my Father with that “new meaning to the word grunge” comment.

    2) You over-emphasize the Cobain hype since Daniel had become a legend among a cult following starting in Austin in 1982, and Kurt did praise his music in the press at length.

    3) You describe his music as “stubbornly unimpressive,” but those are not an apt words to describe music. More truthfully, wouldn’t you say that the reviewer is “stubbornly unimpressed?” Or would you be concerned that the reader would then be more likely to ask, would Mozart be “unimpressive” to a donkey?

    4) Why would you give a good review to a movie about a bi-polar whose music doesn’t impress you? Are your primordal, geek-show instincts piqued by the “tale of a madman” angle? I think you are fearful to alienate Asheville’s many Johnston fans, and, possibly a little bit over-impressed with the Sundance award.

    5) What do you mean by “motives” of his promoters? Are you saying he is being exploited or cheated? His brother is his manager, his parents keep his money safe. If anything, the filmmakers are the exploitative ones, over-emphasizing and using his mental illness.

    I am tired. I could go on all night criticizing your awful, poorly thought out, wordy, equivocal film reviews, god knows you’ve wirtten thousands. And I don’t get paid for this. So, goodnite.

  2. Ken Hanke

    You know, I went through all this when the film came out, but I’ll address a couple of points.

    First of all, the complete statement is “Musically speaking, Johnston’s work remained stubbornly unimpressive to me.” That’s pretty much the same as your insistence that I should have said that I remained stubbornly unimpressed by the music. That “to me” is an important part of that statement.

    Why would I give a good review to a movie about a guy whose music I don’t like? Well, maybe because the movie itself is interesting. Just a thought. Also, I hardly gave the film an unqualified rave. And if you think I’m scared of the backlash of his fanbase (who, by the way, didn’t flock to the film in question, which vanished very quickly), you’re in error. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have spoken ill of the music. And if you think I’m especially impressed by a Sundance award, you’re hardly as familiar with what I’ve written as you seem to claim.

    I certainly agree that the filmmakers have an exploitative motive here. I suggested as much in raising questions about the things the film manages not to address. I am not, however, immediately accepting of the idea that the guy’s not being exploited because his brother is his manager. The history of entertainment is rife with instances of family members making a mighty fine living off their relatives.

    And, for the record, a successful concert may justify Johnston’s talent, but it has nothing to do with justifying the film.

  3. pvc

    Amen, Ken. A good review and a thorough handling of an obvious troll.

  4. Caleb

    Just feel that I should put in my two cents in favour of Jeff’s comment. He’s not a troll, he raised some good points even if they weren’t all good points.

    The idea that people only like Daniel Johnston because Kurt Cobain did is far-fetched (even if his and other musicians’ promotion no doubt has some influence: but that’s by no means a unique feature to Johnston), and casting aspersions on the film because it doesn’t address this question is arrogant.

    I’ll grant you the point in the last paragraph though. The filmmaker could have addressed that question, but I don’t think he’s necessarily dishonest or credulous if he chose to leave it open. not everyone has the same trains of thought as you.

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