The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)
Starring: Louis Black, Bill Johnston, Daniel Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov
Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig
Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I hit the post button on my Top Five Worst Movies of 2006 post, I turn around and watch a movie that makes it obsolete. If I had it to do over, The Devil and Daniel Johnston would have definitely made the cut. So much for optimism.
The documentary, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and winner of the Documentary Directing Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, follows the life of pop artist/folk singer/cult figure Daniel Johnston. Johnston gained a cult following in the mid-eighties Austin folk rock scene, gaining national attention via an MTV special on the scene. His songs have been covered by a number of indie acts, such as Sonic Youth, with many people discovering him when Kurt Cobain wore a shirt with Johnston’s design on the front. On top of his mostly self-released music (his only studio album, Fun was released in 1994 and sold less than 12,000 copies), Johnston also fancies himself and artist and amateur filmmaker.
On top of all that, the guy is bat-shit crazy. He’s been hospitalised off and on in his life, including one time after he and his father Bill Johnston barely escaped a plane crash Daniel caused. After performing a show in 1990, Bill flew the two of them home on a private plane, when Daniel went nuts, wrestled his father, then grabbed the ignition keys and threw them out the window. Bill managed to crash land the plane, with the two escaping with minor injuries.
The movie is about the fine line between madness and genius, and whether Daniel’s art suffered because of the mental health system trying to anaesthetise him, or if he was simply a deranged individual who was goaded on by people who wanted to engage the freak show. Unfortunately, whether or not the movie works for you largely depends on whether or not you accept the premise that Johnston was a genius, or just some dumb crazy guy making shitty music and doodles.
Worse, the movie is structured in such a way that makes it almost necessary to already know of and be interested in Daniel Johnston. Sure, he’s the subject of the documentary, so one could assume that the majority of people watching would be familiar with him or his work, but it shouldn’t play solely to the initiated. I’d never heard of Timothy Treadwell before watching Grizzly Man, and that movie drew me in, whereas this one bored me early, and bored me often.
Two things could’ve improved this documentary significantly, especially for the uninitiated: narration and a non-chronological structure. A narrator could’ve done wonders to put things in context, instead of solely relying on family, admirers, and Daniel himself to tell his story. The chronological structure hurts as it takes a good 45 minutes before Johnston does anything significant enough to suggest him worthy of a documentary. Stories of his childhood do help explain how long he’s been the way he is, and there’s a lot of cassette tape recordings and home videos to show his childhood, but if you have no idea that he becomes semi-famous in small circles, then it really isn’t all that interesting that some guy I don’t know was a weird kid.
Those two things would’ve helped make the documentary better, and easier to follow, but I still probably wouldn’t have liked it very much. Why? Cause Daniel Johnston is fucking annoying. While his enablers may babble on about how he’s better than Brian Wilson or on par with Bob Dylan, I just saw some wack job who couldn’t sing (even in that department, he’s not on par with Dylan, who sounds like a virtuoso by comparison). The more they showed off him and his work, the more I thought “and we care because?”. The emperor has no clothes folks, and Daniel has less talent. My favourite scene in this otherwise torturous movie came when celebrity fan Matt Groening meets Johnston backstage, then looks uncomfortable and wondering how he can get out of there as soon as possible once Johnston starts talking to him about working together. It’s as though at that moment Groening realised that Johnston wasn’t some misunderstood genius, he’s just plain nuts.