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For a crazy person, Daniel Johnston a manic-depressive from West Virginia in his forties now an obese chain-smoker on heavy meds and in the care of his parents, has had a wonderful life and a very creative one as an artist, songwriter and performer who's become a cult figure admired and performed by the likes of Tom Waits, Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain. Jeff Feuerzeig, whose title refers to Daniel's constant mental battles with Satan, has provided a rich and sympathetic external portrait; and Johnson's own endless cassette tapes, songs, and drawings (which, used as important sources, can't help bringing to mind such influential recent documentaries as Andrew Jareaki's Capturing the Friedmans and Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation), provide as good a picture of what's going on inside Johnston's head as we're going to get.
Johnston has been celebrated by a long string of artists and become a cult figure to his fans for his purity, innocence, honesty, and raw pain. Like Caouette, he was unappreciated by his parents and particularly his mother, who thought he spent too much time writing songs and drawing pictures when he was young, and called him a "lazy bum" for not doing his chores around the house. His compulsive creativity was never really appreciated by his fundamentalist Christian family, though since thousands of admirers have applauded him at concerts, surely they begin to appreciate it now.
The many films and tapes of him show Daniel was a charming if unstable young man, buoyant, full of fun, uncooperative, laughing in a teenage film he plays both himself and his abusive mom and beginning to compose the songs that others have said sum up the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other pop greats, though his voice is tuneless and whiny and his piano playing jangly and when he switched to guitar, that was worse. His parents took him out of college because he wasn't doing well, and put him to work. He didn't like that, so they farmed him out to siblings. Luck brought him to Austin in the early Eighties where he worked in a Macdonald's for a surprising length of time considering that he wasn't good at any of the jobs there (he cleared tables) and he was discovered by music writers, an editor, and a man who became his manager and almost his slave (Jeff Tartakov, the manager he fired, who still devotes his life to distributing copies of his tapes).
Johnston had repeated bouts in mental institutions and became increasingly delusional. A period of heavy LSD use clearly led to one of his worst crises: and yet he can recount all this himself, and his mind seems astonishingly lucid. (This is one of the saddest things about madness: that the mad know they're mad, but can do nothing about it.) For all his crises, the Austin public embraced Johnston and he got top awards for folk singing and song writing an event that sat ill with some professional musicians at the time, but satisfied the lust for fame that motivated Johnston, who'd been on MTV, and knew how to grab the spotlight better than he knew how to play his guitar.
I can't see the virtue of Johnston's music and drawings, or rather I can, but I disagree with those in the film who insist he's not an outsider artist. He fits that category well; he's just come along at a time when plaintive whining, alienation, and musical primitivism are the rage, and he was taken up by some admirable champions. However, when he finally got a recording contract drawn up initially when he was in a mental institution his first album issued by Atlantic Records sold only a few thousand copies and he was dropped in two years, showing that despite stars' covers of his songs, he himself has no mainstream appeal, or ability to work in a professional format either as a musician or a visual artist. Nonetheless Johnston's open nature, his clarity, his sense of the redeeming artistic value of love, and his ceaseless artistic productivity are unmistakable and justify the attention that has been lavished upon him. This doesn't stop his story from being ultimately a sad one. For all his parents' caring in latter years, for all his championing by editors and managers, he cannot function on his own. Since his meds stifle his creativity, he has tended to give them up for two weeks before a public performance, and after one of the biggest ones, when his dad was flying the two of them home in his little plane, he overpowered him and took the controls and they crashed into some trees, barely surviving. Well, I guess all artists are a bit reckless, but it's just a matter of degree.
Making full use of films, tapes, and recent interviews, Jeff Feuerzeig has produced a wonderful film that is as good a document of a man as modern techniques allow. And the enduring popular notions of artistic life as train wreck and artistic genius as mental derangement remain unchallenged.
(Feted at fests in mid to late 2005, The Devil and Daniel Johnston went into limited US release March 31, 2006.)
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