film review **1/2: ...Daniel Johnston... a Devil Of a Good Documentary
Film Provides Fascinating Telling of the Life Of Manic-Depressive Artist, Singer, and Songwriter
By Yong-Yi Zhu
Written and Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
Starring Daniel Johnston
Whether you’re Danny Johnston’s biggest fan or have no idea who he is, the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” will both enlighten and entertain you with the tale of his troubled life and beautiful music.
Johnston is a talented artist, filmmaker, and musician. As a child, he drew cartoon pictures and made films about his family, portraying his mother as mean and controlling, and himself as helpless. He simply wanted to communicate his thoughts and experiences through abstract and artistic methods.
Johnston never did well in school, partly because he focused so much on the arts, but eventually, he begins to write music. Using the piano in his home, he records and distributes his own songs, but instead of making multiple copies of the same tape, he sings the entire set over and over again.
After an appearance on MTV, Johnston’s popularity begins to grow. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, sported a shirt of Johnston’s album “Hi, How Are You?” on many of his appearances and several people in the music industry became interested in this mysterious songwriter. It seemed like Johnston’s fame was on the rise and his life was truly taking off, but that is only half of the story.
Underneath this glowing success, Johnston was a manic-depressive who spent significant emotional effort trying to fight off the demons he thought were always after him. This depression began to affect his career — Johnston refused a contract with a record label because he believed Metallica, one of the label’s artists, was demonic. He then impulsively fired his agent, hired another one, and signed with an entirely different record company.
He loses the ability to support himself and to this day, he still relies on his parents, who worry about what will happen once they’re gone.
The way the story is told is touching, and many other aspects of the film are also quite well done. The camera shots are terrific and enhance the fact that Johnston is mentally ill, and the director creates scenes with Johnston alone that highlight the loneliness of manic depressives, while still preserving the authenticity of the situation, giving the film a somber feel.
The music, all original songs by Johnston, enraptures, providing a mellowing effect that can put you in a trance.
On top of that, one of the things that really make the film genuine is the use of original recordings that Johnston made of himself. He constantly taped himself talking about the events of a particular day or the emotions he was experiencing, and the recordings give us an intimate glimpse into this man’s inner world.
The only thing that makes the film difficult to watch is its lack of organization — instead of showing Johnston’s life in a linear fashion, it jumps from person to person, place to place, time to time. This technique makes for a disorienting first ten minutes while the audience is still asking, “Who is Danny Johnston?,” but the film does settle into a groove as more and more is revealed about this enigmatic artist.