Daniel Johnston was only 21 when he wrote and recorded the autobiographical lines "Listen up and I'll tell a story/About an artist growing old/Some would try for fame and glory/Others aren't so bold..." The song, "Story of an Artist," also includes the line "The artist walks alone." A reflection of the singer-songwriter's alienating, damaged mental state, the line isn't strictly true. Johnston has always been accompanied by fans, friends, and family, a fact to which Jeff Feuerzeig attests in his arresting documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Many of those individuals have suffered for their artist, whose born proclivity to record his thoughts and feelings in super-8 films, drawings, and cassette recordings comprising songs, diaries, audio letters, and secretly recorded conversations. With access to it all, Feuerzeig interrogates the witnesses (including Johnston and his traumatized parents), assembles the evidence (including still photos and a specially animated sequence from Johnston's sketches), and dramatically makes a case for Johnston as a great artist incapable of carrying on a consistent, healthy relationship.
Raised in a right-wing Christian family in West Virginia, Johnston was regularly berated by his parents for being "an unprofitable servant of the Lord" in his pursuit of art to the exclusion of more practical vocations. Johnston's visual art shifted into the background (but never disappeared) as the young man began recording lo-fi albums with sweetly simple lyrics reminiscent of Brian Wilson. Like Wilson, Johnston also suffered damage from a bad LSD trip, but the latter's increasingly apparent mental illness—including an obsession with the devil and violent outbreaks—may have no equal among successful touring artists.
Even at his best, Johnston is an erratic pianist, guitarist, and vocalist, and certainly much of his "outsider artist" appeal to fans of his music and visual art owes to his rawness and borderline sanity. Feuerzeig's biggest failing is his failure to foster substantial discussion as to why Johnston's music is so great. We get to hear much of the music, and while it has a tangible appeal, little of it evidently justifies the bandied-about label of "genius," at least not without more articulate critical context to back up the assertion. Though Johnston appears on camera, he says almost nothing about his own music.
Mostly, The Devil and Daniel Johnston resembles Crumb in its depiction of damaged souls whose only refuge is art. Feuerzeig captures several jaw-dropping stories from Johnston's roller-coaster existence, including the day the singer both caused and survived a plane crash. His story is certainly remarkable, and more food for thought about what to do with artists this far out on the edge. Could anyone have done more to help Johnston at any point along the way? Perhaps not, but to see Johnston trading his absurdly valuable drawings or to hear the story of his hovering over a record contract from inside the walls of a mental institution, one might wonder: would anyone have the courage to see him through to mental health?
Though the original elements incorporated by director Jeff Feuerzeig (such as old home movies and cassette tapes) are of variable quality, Sony's transfer and 5.1 soundtrack impeccably represent Feuerzeig's film. On a second track, Feuerzeig and producer Henry S. Rosenthal deliver an attentive and not surprisingly reverential screen-specific commentary throughout the film.
The exhaustive gallery of extras could hardly be more impressive. Sony includes Johnson's "legendary" WFMU broadcast from 1990 (15:10), a featurette of the world premiere screening at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival (7:22)—including John C. Reilly meeting Johnston—and three short films made by Daniel in his youth: "It Must Be Monday" (4:04), "The Dangers of Sled Riding!!" (:52), and "Gallery of the Weird" (:34) (the silent "It Must Be Monday" includes new narration by Johnston).
The treasure trove continues with roughly twenty-two minutes of audio diaries (you can even watch the cassette tape roll as they play) and six deleted or extended scenes: "Bill's Inner Sanctum" (1:32), "Grandma Voyles" (1:04), "It Must Be Monday narrated by Daniel Johnston" (4:15), "Gibby and Daniel" (12:27), "Frog Mural" (2:42), and "King Kong in Africa" (5:20). The most anticipated bonus feature is the reunion of Daniel and his muse Laurie (7:55) after twenty-six years; the footage, captured at Sundance, is tantalizingly awkward.
Previews include Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Sketches of Frank Gehry, The Italian, Why We Fight, Joyeux Noel, The White Countess, Riding Giants, Masked and Anonymous, The Fog of War, Grateful Dawg, Marie Antoinette, The Holiday, and American Hardcore.
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