I wasn’t properly introduced to the music of Daniel Johnston until my junior year of college, in a film theory class of all places. A classmate was trying to make a presentation on abstract storytelling (I think) and was playing his song “King Kong” along with the 1933 classic. It was an interesting experience and the song was primitive enough to get me interested in his music. With underground classics like “Walking the Cow” and “Funeral Home,” Johnston has become an idol to a host of indie rock musicians and to a small army of fans who believe him to be the most talented songwriter living today.
Born in Sacramento and a resident of the west/southwest for most of his life, Johnston grew up in love with everything that could be construed as art. He obsessed over the art of comic books and made home movies constantly. Eventually, he started writing songs, many inspired by the unrequited love of Laurie, a girl who married a mortician and posed in many of his films. As life went on, Daniel became more and more obsessed with religion and the devil, leading him to alienate friends and families. Article continues below
Johnston was diagnosed as manic-depressive and his persistence at being famous (partially fueled by his obsession with the Beatles) drove him to go on MTV. As he grew older, he became more and more of a legend: being sent to a mental home three separate times, becoming close friends with Jad Fair and Sonic Youth and having his t-shirt worn by Kurt Cobain for most of the pre-publicity and post-publicity for In Utero. He often attacked people for no reason -- family and friends, including his close friend and manager Jeff Tartakov, and was responsible for a plane crash on his father’s plane. He currently still lives at home and records with a punk band.
Director Jeff Feuerzeig has bypassed simple fan admiration with this documentary and gone deep into the life of this troubled troubadour. In contrast to Jonathan Demme’s simple, stellar Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Feuerzeig goes in headlong and uses Johnston’s songs as simple landmarks, peppering the demented life filled with self-taped confessionals and Super-8 footage. As a stylist, Feuerzeig is a man of rare talent and startlingly original storytelling. He reenacts events in original ways, whether using a handheld to explain Johnston's forcing an elderly lady to jump out her own window or his eerie evocation of mental-asylum delirium through a slow tracking shot towards a soda machine. If Johnston is Joe Buck, Feuerzeig is his rambling, audacious Enrico Rizzo.
As his touching “Some Things Last a Long Time” drifts in and out of the film's soundtrack, we’re welcomed into a world that is often misrepresented: a tortured artist’s life. Films like Walk the Line, Ray, and Great Balls of Fire are no doubt entertaining, but they don’t reach down into those people’s obsessions (women, drugs, fame) and really show it to you. The Devil and Daniel Johnston somehow has the power to be both emotionally resonant and completely entertaining without copping out of any faction of Johnston’s life. Feuerzeig’s film, whether you’re a fan of Johnston’s or not, is a definitive statement of an artist who can’t get rid of the monsters in his head.