Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

What is it about rock and roll that seems to automatically lend itself to documentaries? It seems any artist in history that has even recorded a single song is subject of a documentary- most have more than one. And unfortunately, many of them are really bad. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is not one of those. This gem of a "rockumentary" does what the best of them do, focuses more on the artist than the music. While most music documentaries are nothing more than glorified concert footage reels, this one is a true documentary in every sense of the genre.

The movie follows troubled singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston. Perhaps what makes this movie so enjoyable is that you do not need to know him before going into it. I had never heard of him before seeing previews for this movie. After watching I not only grew to like his music, I went out and bought one of his albums. Much of the movie focuses on his younger years before he became a star. There are some incredible home videos that he made featuring himself in many roles, and satirizing his "abusive" mother (I personally question the legitimacy of this portrayal). It then continues through his career of creating music and art- in both of which he was very prolific.

The cornerstone of the documentary is not necessarily his art, but his bouts with mental illness. He suffers from depression, delusions, and paranoia, all these augmented by his introduction to hallucinogenic drugs in the mid 80's. Throughout his life he was in and out of mental institutions, and in fact, he even signed his biggest record deal while incarcerated. In one powerful scene he is wandering around New York and tries to break into an old woman's house because he thinks there are demons in there. She gets terrified and jumps out the window, breaking her leg (this all testimony and re-enactment of course). Director Jeff Feuerzeig fills the movie with scenes like this, showing not only the pain Johnston went through, but the pain everyone around him endures as well.

The movie also features interviews with other artists and musicians that all seem to worship Johnston- all except those that know him personally. In one scene Simpson's creator, Matt Groening, gets backstage at one of his shows, and the two of them are almost in awe of each other. Interviews with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth provide real incite, as he was with Johnston during his time in New York. There is even a segment featuring footage of Kurt Cobain, who was probably one of Johnston's most public fans. There was a time period where he could not be seen without wearing his "Hi, How Are You" Johnston created logo on his shirt. It was Cobain that really brought Johnston into the limelight.

What makes this movie so good is that you don't have to like his music to like the movie. It's a fascinating character study, not just homage. It portrays Johnston as a musical genius, but equally shows his dark side. This is a fine piece of film-making. It's not one of the best rockumentary ever (DiG probably holds that spot for me), but it is quite good. It was not widely released until 2006, but unfortunately a few showing in 2005 rendered it ineligible for this year's academy awards. Otherwise I have little doubt it would have been a contender for best documentary.



Anonymous said...

Did you notice in the picture for the movie poster the two people kneeling in the middle have too many feet? Each of them have 3 feet.


Harry said...

I you look closely, they actually only have two each. The third pair in the very middle are facing the opposite direction. Those are from the woman standing in the background. Took me a while to figure that out though.