Review of "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

By Jeff Feuerzeig (Director)
Sony Pictures, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 28th 2007
The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Director Jeff Feuerzeig and producer Henry Rosenthal believe that Daniel Johnston is a major musician and visual artist.  In their commentary to this DVD, they compare him to Bob Dylan and John Lennon.  This belief in the value of his work gave them the energy to spend so much time on this film about him.  Born in 1961, he grew up in Chester, West Virginia, a small town on the Ohio River squeezed between Pennsylvania and Ohio.  The Johnston family are conservative Christians, but Daniel was always rather different.  From an early age, he was making movies, some of which are on this film.  As Feuerzeig emphasizes on his commentary, the Johnstons were almost compulsive documenters of their family life, so they had a wealth of photographs and other records of the past to use in the movie.  Many of those around Johnston have continued to record his life and his performances.  The filmmakers conviction and the wealth of records of Johnston's past make for a rich documentary. 

Daniel Johnston's early recordings were made at home on a portable tape player.  Released in the early to mid 1980s, it fit in with the independent music scene and was one of the first "lo-fi" artists.  He managed to get himself on an MTV show about Austin, Texas where he was living, and when Kurt Cobain of Nirvana started wearing a Daniel Johnston T-Shirt, Johnston got a huge amount of publicity.  He never really capitalized on that opportunity, but he continues to make music and he travels the world playing his music and showing his art.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is full of Daniel Johnston's early work, unearthed homemade movies, and rare footage that hasn't been available previously.  Particularly astonishing is an early live performance at a record store in Hoboken, NJ, shot by one of the members of Sonic Youth.  We also see some of his early animation which had never previously been animated.  The movie also shows Johnston now, still living with his parents, playing music with his current band, and doing live performances.  We get interviews with friends and family members, although Johnston himself is never directly interviewed in a conventional way.  He does do an amazing dance during the final credits. 

Johnston is often a hard person to be around, and he made life difficult for some of those closest to him.  Much of this stems from the fact that he has a major mental disorder.  He diagnosed himself as manic depressive in his early twenties and he has spent a great deal of time in psychiatric hospitals.  While his condition is stabilized now, he is clearly different from most other people.  His parents express their concern for how he will cope once they are no longer able to help him, and the filmmakers say that one of the motivations for their project was to help him make enough money to be financially independent. 

The movie documents Johnston's trials and tribulations as his determination to make music and art contends with his mental illness and the conviction of most of his family members that he should be focusing on learning more practical skills.  Among the amazing events we learn about are the times he left home to join a carnival, when he tried to crash his father's plane when they were in it together, and when he scared an old woman so much she jumped out from one of the windows of her home.  His friends show their affection for him and their readiness to forgive his eccentric behavior since he is mentally ill.  It's a gripping story, and it is told well.  It is especially moving to see his parents talk about their son's illness, and their concern for him while troubled by his behavior. 

The DVD has a wealth of extras, including deleted scenes, a featurette of the premiere of the movie at Sundance, his audio diaries, a live performance by phone on WFMU, and a touching but discomforting reunion between Johnston and the love of his life Laurie.  The commentary by the director and producer is a little gushing, but it is full of interesting details about the making of the movie.

Some people will learn about Daniel Johnston through this movie, and it is a great introduction.  Others will have known about his work for many years, and for them, the movie will fill in a great many details that they didn't previously know.  Knowing more about his life helps to explain his songs and his artwork.  Not many people will be convinced that he really is one of the great artists currently living, but it leaves no question that he is unique.  His artwork is very distinctive, with recurring symbols and themes, and his songs tend to be about his personal dreams and beliefs.  They are directly related to his own experiences, and they have a charming simplicity.

This documentary will be especially important for those interested in the link between mental illness, creativity, and religious belief.  His religious upbringing has had a profound effect on his view of the world, and it seems to feed into some of his delusional tendencies, with his references to the devil, death, and numerology.  His friends and family say that he was always bursting with an urge to sing and make art, and this oddness seemed to expand in his late teens so that as he was meant to take on adult responsibilities, he became diagnosed with a mental illness. 

Johnston is by no means the only musician to have a severe mental illness, but that illness is more directly relevant to understanding his work than for most other musicians.  His psychiatric history is such a major part of his life and his songs are so personal that much of his music can be understood as about mental illness.  The Devil and Daniel Johnston addresses these issues directly, and provides a sympathetic approach to mental illness. 




Link: Official Daniel Johnston Site

© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.



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