When you come to Sundance, it’s with the hope of seeing a film like “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” a near-brilliant portrait of a tortured, artistic genius. Unknown by too many, beloved by too few, Daniel Johnston is a true American original: an unparalleled singer-songwriter, artist, former McDonalds employee, delusional manic-depressive, unlikely legend in his own time. There will be those who approach this film with great anticipation, obsessive fans of Johnston’s who’ve waited for this moment forever. Then there will be those like me, who unfortunately had very little exposure to Johnston’s music and art prior to now. But I guess that’s the very reason why this doc feels so out of leftfield, immediate, and an extraordinary work of art in its own right.
For those that don’t know, Daniel Johnston is best known as a brilliant singer-songwriter who has the lyricism of Dylan, but the musical chops, or lack thereof, of Wesley “King of Rock ’n Roll” Willis. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is an illuminating chronicle of Johnston’s origins, rise to fame, disastrous breakdowns, paranoid delusions, painful redemption, and eventual elevation to living legend status. Since Johnston was such a prolific and obsessive artist by nature, he recorded on tape or film nearly every major moment in his life, artistic or otherwise. Thus, the film flaunts an almost unprecedented array of “found” footage that, when collected, remarkably captures the elusive essence of the man. The early footage of Johnston’s tumultuous creative odyssey is particularly illuminating, as the teenage Daniel provokes the anger and frustration of his loving parents who just didn’t get him. Firmly rooted in their Christian fundamentalist ideals, Mabel and Bill Johnston deeply cared for their son, but feared his turning to the “dark” side and becoming an “unprofitable servant of the Lord”, as they put it. As much as they tried to set him on the “right” path, enrolling him at a Christian college in Abilene, Johnston’s voracious creativity could not be suppressed and soon bizarre illustrations of eyeballs and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Captain America began flowing from him at a somewhat alarming rate.
Johnston eventually left Abilene and enrolled at an art college, Kent State, which was a much better fit for his unique sensibilities. At Kent, Johnston would meet the girl of his dreams and life-long muse in Laurie Allen. As Johnston tells it, she would inspire a thousand songs in him. But as it were, a lifetime with Laurie was not in the cards and it was around this time that Johnston would begin his long and devastating downward spiral. The rest of his tale is so unbelievable, so ridiculous, that to recount it all here would only be a foolhardy effort. To briefly summarize, Johnston’s absurd odyssey would find him running away with a carnival, scamming his way onto MTV, recording a masterpiece in “Hi, How Are You?”, losing his mind on LSD, attacking his manager with a lead pipe, getting committed to various mental institutions, adopting a fanatically Christian ideal, “assaulting” an elderly woman, working with Sonic Youth, crashing an airplane, starting a record company bidding war, firing his long-time manager Jeff Tartakov, and obsessing over Mountain Dew from a jail cell. And these are just some of the highlights (lowlights?) of an artist some people compare to Dylan or Brian Wilson.
Having been a Johnston novice, I must admit to being thoroughly unprepared for the sheer enormity of the man’s talents. While filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig does an exceptional job of establishing Johnston as an almost preternaturally gifted figure with generous helpings of his music and art, his real accomplishment with “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is in illuminating the deeply troubled man behind all the hipster fuss. The film is virtually overflowing with truly memorable scenes of great humor, pain, and inspiration. Especially heartfelt are the scenes of an older, somewhat stabilized Johnston living at home with his parents. Seeing the three of them onscreen together, after knowing the hardships they faced and continue to face, is enough to induce shivers. At 109 minutes, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” feels slightly overlong, perhaps the price to pay for Feuerzeig’s obvious admiration for the guy. Feuerzeig clearly wants to place Johnston in the pantheon of the great Crazy Artists of history, from Virgin Woolf to Dali. With this film, I believe that the strange and wonderful legend of Daniel Johnston will only continue to grow.