Hello. I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston… It is an honor and a privilege to speak to you today to tell you about my condition… and the other world.”
—Daniel Johnston, filming himself in a mirror circa 1985
I must confess to a near total ignorance of the career of mentally troubled musician, artist, and all around cult icon, Daniel Johnston. I trust I am not alone in this; his is as far from a household name as you are likely to get. But given that a good number of the bands and artists I’ve listened to over the past 16 years have been collaborators with, or enthusiasts of, Johnston, I find it somewhat inexplicable, and not a little bit inexcusable, that I’m so late to the party.
I’ve heard his name flitting about on the edge of things, an obscure influence. And yet his output has been so multifarious and prolific, so discouragingly daunting, that there seems to be no easy or obvious entry point into his body of work. But The Devil and Daniel Johnston—a loving but unflinchingly frank documentary portrait of the fringe artist’s fringe artist—is the perfect solution to this dilemma, an inviting portal into the world and mind of man who is hailed as no small genius in certain quarters. Aimed more at the neophyte than the initiate, it’s less a gushingly laudatory hagiography (as so many of these types of films can be) than a direct and often profound stare into the depths of the artistic soul, a search for the answer to the universal disquiet that drives the creative urge and its potential cost to the mind and soul.
If director Jeff Feuerzeig’s excellent film seems perhaps a bit distracted, loose and, well, schizophrenic, this is deliberate and apt, given what we are to learn of Johnston. At first it seems it will hew to the standard biodoc template: interviews with friends, family and fellow travelers, interspersed with photos and home movies, speaking around the subject, tracing the man with words and memories. But then soon we are watching an old homemade Super 8 film made by Johnston himself when we was 13, a simple comic sketch starring Johnston as both himself and his mother, who is trying to wrestle her reluctant son out of bed and off to school. Crude, but acted and edited with a preternatural surety coupled with a fresh faced innocence, it is an early manifestation of a lifelong urge to coax an inner beauty out of his mundane life, an urge which will inform all his multifarious output in subsequent years. It’s also the first intrusion into the film of Johnston himself (or, better, his imagined self), and, as the film progresses, the more and more it becomes suffused and overrun with his life long projects and strange obsessions (Caspar the Friendly Ghost looming above all as the oddest and most iconic).
Born of an eternal, idealistic longing , his countless home films; his endless stream of bizarre tape recorded monologues and audio letters; his comic book informed art work; and, of course, his music, burst forth in a riot of manic ebullience coupled with a wistful melancholy for unrequited love And all these variegated aspects of Johnston’s art begin to hijack the film to such a degree that we wonder whether Feuerzeig is actually in charge anymore, or whether this previously “objective”, or at least third person, portrait of Johnston has been wrested away from the director’s control and turned into a self-portrait by Johnston himself, into a sort of grand summation of a man who has spent his entire career mythologizing himself. Indeed, Johnston, with his outsized continuously overflowing personality, coupled with the sheer mass of his output, seems to exert a strong gravitational pull, luring everything into his own orbit, making it his own.
And yet, as self-obsessive, nearly hermetic, as Johnston and his artistic world can seem, he never alienates others the way similarly self-centric artists seem to. There’s an attractive innocence about him, a refreshing lack of guile coupled with a contagious enthusiasm for the inner world he is creating, so that he is never anything but totally inviting. You can hear it in his high nasally singing voice, so odd and distracting, but so honest as so override its atonality. His enthusiasm overruns everything, beats down every barrier. He wants us in his world, he wants to share himself completely. But our problem, of course, is in getting in. And here we come to the great sadness of his life.
Plagued early on by restlessness and distraction, as Johnston aged so did his burgeoning mental illness, manifesting itself in manic depressive, often self-destructive behavior. His great profligacy is accompanied by near continual nervous collapse, prolonged trips to mental institutions, longer stretches spaced out on varieties of medications, and catastrophic relapses which endanger both himself and others. Ever on the verge of success, his name becoming ever bigger in underground music circles (even becoming famous nation wide through a fortuitous sartorial choice by Kurt Cobain), Johnston languishes, a man thoroughly apart, never fully able (or maybe willing) to capitalize on his immense gifts, and prone to a violence so at odds with his art. Offsetting his remarkable artistic generosity is an equally singular talent for self-sabotage (recalling similarly troubled Anton Newcombe, profiled in the also excellent documentary Dig!), an inability to find (or want to find) true success. Whether this is a deliberate choice (Johnston seems conscious of the necessity of instability for great art to emerge, deliberately going off his meds to play his remarkably vibrant life shows) or a function of his illness, we realize that even for all his production thus far, what we are seeing is probably only, and ever will be, the tip of the iceberg.
Johnston’s zealously self-documented inner battles—his pining for his eternal muse (a college crush named Laurie, who seems to have inspired hundreds of his songs), his wrestling with his strict religious upbringing (which often manifests itself in wild-eyed zealous harangues at his live shows)—offer a glimpse into the cauldron of creative impulse, into the origin and seat of genius, and into that dark place where genius collapses into madness. He seems to embody the fury and essential unknowability of this genesis, of its beauty and its horror. He himself is the raw stuff of creation, the vast universal potential. It’s more than he can handle, and he knows it, and succumbs to it.
But yet in the end, after countless prolonged stays in mental hospitals, Johnston emerges from the other side intact, somewhat reborn. Like similarly cracked savant Brian Wilson (with whom numerous fans speciously compare him), he appears to have found a new vitality both as an artist and a man, a certain ability to contain the instability that has undone him up to this point. I wonder, though, how much of this was of his own will, and how much due to the love and support of his seemingly infinitely patient parents. Because, really, this is almost as much their film as much as it is his. Their interviews are featured prominently throughout, offering a unique soundboard and alternative history of Johnston’s own imagined story, and really, they are responsible for saving him more than anyone else. Though rigidly principled and somewhat confused by their odd duck son, they ultimately support and embrace his talent, to the point where now his father is his manager. And ultimately, The Devil and Daniel Johnston succeeds because it transcends its particular focus on one artist and his peculiar work, and becomes a testament to the strength and love of family, the struggle against withering illness, and the triumph of a soul finally unfettered from its shackles.
Perhaps wanting to wrest back control of his film from his subject, director Feuerzeig, along with producer Henry Rosenthal, offers a commentary track that veers between the fetishistically technical and the overexplanatory. I know these things are supposed to sort of fill in just this sort of background material, but Feuerzeig overplays his hand in his slavish devotion to Johnston’s genius that it almost undermines the film itself, which as it stands, is so effortlessly lyrical and evocative. The other extras are a goldmine, though, and are so tantalizing that you really wish there’d been a whole other disc full of nothing but Johnston’s sundry projects. We are treated to numerous audio ramblings taken direct from cassette, which verge from the willfully bizarre to the heartbreaking (his audio letter to his best friend, envisioning their parallel lives unspooling in front of them is an outstanding instance of the sort wistfulness that informs Johnston’s work). Several home movies referenced or shown in abbreviated form in the film are here shown in their entirety. Curiously missing, though, are any extended musical clips. Whether from a dearth of material or a conscious effort, this is a shame, since, though Johnston’s music does underscore much of the film, few songs are heard in their entirety, to their full effect.
Rounding out the disc are a handful of deleted scenes, a few clips from the film’s premiere at Sundance in 2005, and finally an oddly uneasy, but affecting, reunion between Johnston and his muse, Laurie, after having not seeing each other for over 25 years. You can tell Johnston has just had his world completely upended, seeing his muse appear before him at long last. He is alternately effusive and speechless. She seems not quite sure exactly what to make of this schlubby savant who has transformed her into his own Beatrice. Eavesdropping on their awkward conversation, we see her politely asking him what he’s going to do with himself now. “Let’s get married!” he blurts out, and envelops her in a bear hug. She laughs him off, thinking him joking, but I think he’s 100 percent serious. If there’d been any doubt that Johnston’s imagined universe—with all its beauty and sorrow—still takes primacy above the real world, here’s the final clincher. And yet, watching him thus, in this quiet, epiphanic moment, all I see is hope.