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Many of the great artists of history have suffered from some form of mental disorder, and we often find ourselves fascinated both by their brilliance and their madness. Of course, as this documentary points out, none of us ever had to actually live with a Van Gogh or a Lord Byron and deal with the real world consequences of what went on in their heads.
In The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jeff Feuerzeig gives us a rare glimpse into the tortured mind of just such brilliant artist by effectively combining interviews from those who have known Daniel Johnston best with Johnston's own internal monologue. Feuerzeig achieves the latter because, apart from recording hundreds of songs on cassette tapes, Daniel recorded much of his life; from his mother screaming at him as a teenager to his arrest by park officials for painting Jesus fish on the Statue of Liberty to Johnston reading aloud about his own mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Many people came to know Daniel Johnston's work in the early 90s when Kurt Cobain famously called him the "greatest songwriter on Earth" and wore a t-shirt with an image from one of Johnston's hand-drawn album covers on the MTV Video Music Awards. Johnston's raw and introspective songs were subsequently covered by Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips, Beck, and many others. Sadly, just as his music was making inroads into the popular consciousness Johnston's mental illness worsened (possibly accelerated by heavy LSD use), and his career and life entered increasingly troubled waters.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston works as a documentary about music, art, and mental illness all at the same time. It grants you unusual access to what's going on inside a the mind of a human being bursting with creative talent while simultaneously struggling to control the demons that haunt him. After watching this, don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to hear more of Daniel Johnston's work.
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