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DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, THE (director/writer: Jeff Feuerzeig; cinematographer: Fortunato Procopio; editor: Tyler Hubby; music: Daniel Johnston; Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Henry S. Rosenthal; Sony Pictures Classics; 2005)
“… a haunting portrait of an artist walking on the edge, that shows his pain in a very real way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jeff Feuerzeig’s (“Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King”) straightforward documentary is about the life and music of talented singer/songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston, a manic-depressive raised in a Christian fundamentalist West Virginia family and institutionalized a number of times over his continual mental problems. It’s a compelling biopic on the now mid-forties survivor, gray-haired and obese, whose raw talents can be seen through his original but primitive comic book art and primitive Dylan-esque songs. Whether you buy into him as a genius is another story, as I liked his music but wasn’t as crazy about it as I was led to believe I should be by the heavy-handed spiel by the filmmaker and talking heads interviewed. It uses archived film clips (mostly those homemade ones made by Daniel himself, as he was always looking out for his legacy even at an early age), family photos and interviews, and recordings with newly shot footage and interviews, to paint a clear picture of the tortured genius.

All artists dance to a different tune, but Daniel’s different tune is also part of his mental illness–which adds to his romantic legendary status. The youngest of five children, Daniel grew up with the ambition to be a famous artist. At an early age he made his own home movies on Super-8 film, dug Caspar the Ghost, excelled in comic-book drawings, and was influenced by many musicians including The Beatles. By secondary school he manifested symptoms of mental problems that didn’t become overwhelming until college. He would run away from a second college he attended in Ohio (after his first girlfriend, someone he was obsessed over, married an undertaker) to join a traveling carnival, and wound up staying in Austin, Texas, just when the music scene there boomed. Using his garage-made cassette of “Hi, How Are You” to open doors and while working at McDonald’s cleaning tables, he hooked up with the local underground music scene and even had in the 1980s a brief stint on MTV. Daniel’s instability was heightened by taking LSD and his looming devil phobia (something that’s still a problem), contributing to his going off the deep end and ending up in the loony bin. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for Nirvana, thought Daniel was the greatest living songwriter and wore a T-shirt advertising his cassette on MTV–which caught the attention of the rocker crowd. While institutionalized major record companies started a bidding war for his services, and when released his career was about to take off but never could because of his mental illness (made worse at times by not taking his meds to heighten his performances). He now lives in rural Texas with his supportive elderly parents, Mabel and Bill, and might not be a household name but he’s still very popular in Texas and still performs all over the world. There’s also a tribute to his selfless manager Jeff Tartakov, who got a raw deal from Daniel when he was ill but has stood by him trying to make sure his many cassettes get out to the public. Some of his more well-known cassettes are “Don’t Play Cards With Satan” and “Frito Lay.”

Feuerzeig won the best-director award at the 2005 Sundance festival. It’s a haunting portrait of an artist walking on the edge, that shows his pain in a very real way–but, to its credit, not taking it serious for a sec that insanity is a good career move for a rocker.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”