Film: The Devil Inside

Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary looks at the troubled yet creative life of Daniel Johnston

Jun 14, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jeff Fuerzeig

Daniel Johnston fuels up for another day of creativity.

Feature-length music documentaries have taken an unusual turn in recent years. While it used to be that only the true superstars or the biggest concerts warranted a movie — Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, endless Rolling Stones movies — now it's almost the mirror opposite.

While such traditional films do still turn up — witness Jonathan Demme's beautifully-staged Neil Young concert film, Heart of Gold — they're being outnumbered by films about cult underground acts, often projects with tragic histories.

New York Doll focused on Arthur "Killer" Kane, the hard-luck bassist of the hard-luck proto-Punk band New York Dolls. Be Here to Love Me was about the laconic Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died too soon. The Nomi Song recalled the short career of New York's operatic Pop singer and early AIDS victim Klaus Nomi.

And now comes one of the best such films, about one of the most bizarre yet fascinating of all cult music acts, Jeff Feuerzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston. (The title is both a play on Stephen Vincent Benet's story, "Devil and Daniel Webster," as well as a reference to the fact poor Daniel Johnston clearly is tormented by something inside him.)

Luckily, this film's subject is still alive — although as Feuerzeig makes clear, survival hasn't been easy for the 45-year-old Johnston. Now living near Austin, Tex., Johnston is an overweight, chain-smoking, manic-depressive (or worse) with obsessive tendencies and given to such violent episodes as once trying to crash a private plane his father was flying.

He has spent time hospitalized, and now his elderly parents watch over and try to protect him.

But he's also still making music. Although his voice strains for tunefulness and his mastery of such instruments as the guitar is shaky, he nevertheless writes songs that are hallmarks of directness and simplicity. He's like a completely unaffected Jonathan Richman, which is saying something since Richman is not exactly Mr. Slickness.

Johnston's music attracted many fans among the influential, trendsetting Alternative Rock musicians of the early 1990s — Nirvana's Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston-designed "Hi, How Are You?" T-shirt at the MTV Music Awards.

Johnston also is a visual artist (he attended art school) whose detail-crammed, obsessive-compulsive fantasy paintings and drawings about Casper the Friendly Ghost, eyeballs and other offbeat subjects have an outsider quality.

Some might compare him to Henry Darger, although Johnston's technical skills are reasonably strong. Some might also think of Robert Crumb, since in many ways Johnston's predicament recalls that of Crumb's family in the documentary Crumb. (Johnston's art was accepted into this year's Whitney Biennial, and his work is so in demand that his Web site is warning collectors against forgeries.)

One way in which Johnston has survived his mental problems — and it's undoubtedly an offshoot of his behavior — is to video- or audio-record virtually everything he's done since a young man, an ongoing document of his life. As a result, he has given Feuerzeig all sorts of archival material to use in constructing this lively, compelling history. The director adds interviews with family and acquaintances, although Johnston himself remains an elusive interview subject.

Feuerzeig won Best Documentary Director at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for his skill in putting together all the pieces. (A former Cincinnatian, Henry Rosenthal, produced the film.)

The unknown Johnston first attracted attention when he charmed the TV cameras during a visit to Austin by MTV's Cutting Edge in the early 1980s. It's giddily wonderful to see the Cutting Edge footage here, where this young, goofy guy so endearingly steps forward and steals a TV show with his unvarnished personality. It's also sad — tragic, really — to see it in the context of what a physical wreck Johnston has become.

And yet it isn't. There is a positive story here, considering the demons that Johnston has struggled with all his life. For instance, we learn he already was showing questionable mental stability in high school in West Virginia, where he excessively pined over a girl.

Thus, as the movie goes on, it's inspiring to see how Johnston's family and friends have stepped forward to care for him. His parents, especially, come off as heroic figures since they're now old and frail themselves. And although the point is underplayed in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, one must also thank the new generation of anti-depressive drugs that have helped creative but mentally troubled people like Johnston find enough peace to work.

For those who don't already know and like Johnston's music, I'm not sure what they hear in this film will convince them of his talent (the ruggedness of his sound can be off-putting to many). I recommend listening to 2004's two-disc Discovered Uncovered, which pairs Johnston's original recordings with covers by Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, Bright Eyes, Beck and others.

I'm a fan of his music. But I'll admit I'm not quite ready to buy the film's claim — espoused by the art dealer who represents him — that Johnston is a great visual artist because he's so hotly collected. People might be buying the celebrity rather than the art, some of which looks dashed off. Feuerzeig doesn't explore that possibility, and he should have.

So you — or I — might not come out of The Devil and Daniel Johnston agreeing with the film's premise that he's a true Renaissance man, a genius. But you should come out moved by the story of how this troubled man, struggling for recognition and self-expression, has found an audience against some long odds. Grade: B+