Film review: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Complex, That Is That Productions

PRODUCED BY Henry S. Rosenthal
DIRECTED BY Jeff Feuerzeig
SHOT BY Fortunato Procopio
EDITED BY Tyler Hubby
MUSIC BY Daniel Johnston
DISTRIBUTED BY Sony Pictures Classics, Tartan Films

Screened 2006-09-29

If your average high-schooler wrote a paper which accurately covered the history of Van Gogh, it would be interesting – because Van Gogh is interesting. The paper itself would lack a level of analysis and/or respect befitting to such a legendary artist. Singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, who was compared to Van Gogh in the film, inspires that level of awe in a number of living artists and was approached by a filmmaker who was the equivalent of such a high-schooler. From the get-go we’re privy to possibly the greatest documentary cliché to represent the youngest remembered years of an artists’ life: We hear the sound of an old-style film projector, as if we’re watching a grainy 50’s education film in a classroom, and then we see a collection of slides and old home movies with the beginning narration from Johnston’s mother: “Daniel was always different. He was…different.” And the rest of the film proceeds accordingly, told by a man who saw him as nothing more than “…different…”

Johnston’s life may come off as a tragedy, and it’s hard to tell how he himself would regard it. Johnston seems infected by an unquenchable optimism, very possibly a stubborn naiveté, and no matter how much his own demons rail him he never stops fighting his good fight. He holds onto his sanity, onto God, by the skin of his teeth, constantly fearing (and sometimes experiencing?) possession by his devils – or the Devil himself. In a psychological sense Johnston’s story comes off as one of history’s greatest epic battles. Good versus evil, with Johnston in the middle as an eternal being’s pawn – but whose? It’s often hard to tell how to truly view Johnston – at times he appears to be Jesus Christ, and at others is possessed by demons. One thing about him is certain – he’s fighting for his life, and it’s a debilitating struggle – absolutely a story worth being told. Johnston, while beautiful, is a pathetic creature.

The ultimate tragedy with this film is that a portrait of Daniel Johnston could’ve existed as an incomparable dissection into the madness behind art, and the artists who may or may not be madmen themselves. Few other living artists have such archives of film and audio footage spanning their entire lives to draw from; this film was most fun for the editor (goddammit).

The story of Johnston’s life provokes a thousand historically-burning questions – questions such as: what is madness? Does society create madmen, or were they born that way? At what point does creativity become dangerous? What is good taste? What is art? – and this film acknowledges none of them. It receives a C because, if you include the proper information, Johnston’s is a story that cannot be told the wrong way – but it could’ve been told a thousand times better. I daresay this could’ve been one of the greatest documentaries ever made – not just a portrait of a man’s life, but of life itself. Why, oh why, couldn’t Errol Morris have found Johnston first? I digress – see this film. Johnston’s story is one worth hearing.

written by David Ashley