The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005)

DVD Cover (Sony Home Entertainment)
Genres: Biography (Non-Fiction), Documentary, Music
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Jeff Feuerzeig Jeff Feuerzeig
Daniel Johnston Daniel Johnston
Laurie Allen Laurie Allen
Brian Beattie Brian Beattie
Louis Black Louis Black
David Fair David Fair

7.9 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by bluemeanie
Added: June 05, 2006
The name 'Daniel Johnston' does not ring a bell with the average American. He has been an underground legend for so long that even most music fans are unfamiliar with his myth. But, if you watched MTV in the mid-80's, or know anything about the culture of music in Austin, Texas, you probably know more than your share about the man. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is the engrossing new documentary about a man whom many consider to be the greatest American songwriter since Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, you either love him or hate him. His voice is not for everyone. His musical abilities are not for everyone. He writes as simply as he can and he uses the pain behind his voice to tell the story. This documentary is not likely to change many opinions on Daniel Johnston, as it paints him as crazy as ever, though it provides a little method to his madness. What this documentary will hopefully do is expose the rest of the world to Johnston's music, which turns out to be some of the most beautiful and haunting recordings ever captured on tape. I left the theatre, went home, and downloaded as much of it as I could find. I am now a fan. I don't know that everyone will have the same reaction that I did, but I hope that they will give it a chance.

Born in West Virginia to 'fundamentalist' parents, Daniel Johnston's childhood seems as normal as they come. He liked painting and playing the piano, against the wishes of his Bible-toting mother and father. He had a crush on a girl at college, but she was already taken, though he used that crush to inspire most of his music for the rest of his life. Daniel Johnston was a young guy who wanted to be famous, wanted to be on MTV, and wanted to share his music with the world. Eventually, however, it became evident that there was a problem with Daniel. After achieving success on MTV in the mid-80's and having his music devoured by adoring fans in Austin - just as his name was beginning to spread - his 'manic depressive' disorder kicked into full effect, causing serious problems between he and his family, he and his friends, and he and the world. This documentary chronicles Daniel's rise and fall and rise again as one of the most respected and beloved underground artists in the world, from his days of recording on his tape player in the garage to his recording with some of the biggest names in rock and alternative music. By the end of the film, we feel sorry for Daniel Johnston, not because of what he has gone through, but because of what he has missed.

Though his name might be unfamiliar, Daniel Johnston's legend is known by just about every musician and band out there. Johnston's popularity rose sharply when Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana, started wearing one of his shirts in every public appearance. It also helped that Johnston's manager, Jeff Tartakov, did everything he could to make sure that Johnston's name stayed in the spotlight, even when Daniel was in an institution somewhere. This story was just fascinating. For example, when Daniel first decides to start performing live, he gives up the piano, which he played rather well, and uses only a small guitar, which he does not know how to play. When he wins a couple of awards at the Austin Music Awards, local artists are upset because they have lost to someone who doesn't even know how to play his own instrument. There is also a very interesting experience where Daniel travels to New York City to record with the band Sonic Youth, when his manic depressive behavior kicks into full effect. The sad aspect of the film comes through his father and mother, two people who love their son dearly and will do anything to help him. Some have painted them as possible catalysts for his behavior, but I think they are more his saviors than anything else. One wonders what Johnston will do when they have passed away and gone.

A strange feeling swept over me while watching "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" - a kind of sad and sympathetic feeling that stuck with me for the rest of the night. Here was quite possibly one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known, his legacy halted by a condition that he could neither condone or control. Who knows what Daniel Johnston could have become without his condition holding him back. Who knows how many millions of records he could have sold? Alas, even with such a bizarre career, Johnston is still inspiring musicians all over the world with his music, performing live occasionally, and giving fans exactly what they want. In that sense, I guess his career is a great one - something that most would dream of; however, when the show is over and the crowds have gone, Daniel Johnston has only himself for company. And, while that might lead to some beautiful music, it doesn't do much for his condition, or his well-being. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is the best documentary of the year, and a real winning portrayal of a man whose music would cause anyone to sing "Rushing Water" in the middle of a creek on Christmas.

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