dir: Jeff Feuerzeig
Documentaries are great for finding the true stories behind people known for something they did or something they were. Documentaries are also great at illuminating the stories of people for whom obscurity and anonymity would have been a blessing.
Firmly, firmly within the tradition of doco subjects such as Robert Crumb and his insane brothers in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, the eccentric mother and daughter of Albert Maysle’s Grey Gardens and the indulgent, excruciating self-laceration of Jonathan Caoutte’s Tarnation, The Devil and Daniel Johnston reveals the life and times of an absolute nutter.
Daniel Johnston enjoyed a certain kind of notoriety in the late 80s-early 90s when too-cool hipsters and try-hards like Sonic Youth and the shmucks from Nirvana raised him to public consciousness. Of course he was oh-so-famous in his home town and around his family, but this virtually unknown singer-songwriter became famous mostly because he is crazy.
He started off with promise, of some kind that I can’t really figure out, but degenerated into the darkest pit of manic-impressive madness. He was obsessed entirely with music and becoming a famous musician, but never really seemed to achieve the goal of learning how to actually write or play music properly.
We have an incredible amount of material to elaborate on his story as it is being told, because he seems to have been fixated from an early age with the idea of recording every single moment of his daily existence for posterity. Coupled with his habit of sending tapes to a friend of his that captured his daily hopes and fears, there is so much to substantiate the true extent of the crazy life he has led.
The guy’s not dead, let’s not give that impression. That he is still alive is a tremendous miracle, considering one of the jaw-dropping anecdotes Daniel’s father tells us regarding the totally mad and destructive actions Daniel takes after a successful trip to the South by Southwest festival in Texas in the 1990s. But it’s not really the conventional rags to riches to rags back to riches tale of most ‘famous’ musicians. Daniel, at the height of his fame, is still a minor, quirky figure in the pantheon of American alternative music. He’s no Scott Walker, Syd Barrett or even Brian Wilson. He’s just a crazy guy who wrote several thousand songs about a girl called Laurie, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Satan.
There are people around Daniel who have been humouring, supporting and exploiting him for the last few decades, and most of them seem to get their fifteen seconds to tell their part in Daniel’s life. Most of all we see the wearying, grinding down impact mental illness has not only on the individual but especially on their friends and family.
As a child Daniel seems to have an overabundance of energy and talent, more than any five boys should be able to possess. We see as do the people around him that the promise and over-activity of his early years gives way to an unmanageable level of crazy fuckheadedness that most people would just wish would go away permanently.
The ‘famous’ people who attach Daniel to their bandwagons seem, to me, to be a mixture of enthusiastically naïve or just outright shameful parasites. The night-time chase through the streets of New York when Daniel is brought up on a lark by members of Sonic Youth and ends up going off the reservation says more about the foolishness of the people other than Daniel rather than what it says about Daniel.
It is ironic to say that a documentary such as this one, which ultimately is worth watching, doesn’t really reveal much about Daniel through Daniel himself. We hear the people close to him talk about him and every aspect of his over-documented life, we here recordings of him relating every aspect of his life from the mundane to the less mundane, and see him playing and singing frequently, but he remains unknowable.
He seems like an outright nutter, and a person who too many people humoured in the way that people applaud a dancing bear or a tone-deaf retard singing a Ricky Martin song on national television. I have to admit that his music does nothing for me. I get that the heartfelt naiveté with which he goes ahead and mangles his own creations whilst singing in front of enthusiastic crowds is sweet, in a faintly embarrassing way. And I think such a doco is perfectly valid: I just don’t agree that Daniel is some kind of tortured child-like genius battling with mental illness who has nevertheless granted the world some magical bits of wonder. He’s a paranoid, delusional nutjob who sounds inferior in singing and song-writing ability to most buskers you’ll hear playing on your local city streets.
So I feel a certain amount of ambivalence towards the subject, but not the subject matter’s story or the manner in which it is dealt with or the interviews with the various friends, family and hangs-on who illumine that story, even if I wonder whether making such a documentary feeds into Daniel’s delusional narcissism which probably isn’t healthy.
What makes me uncomfortable the most is the way in which people like Daniel are treated by the media and the ‘artistic’ community. “Outsider” art is the catch-all phrase used to refer to people who are, by dint of lack of mental competence, not really in possession of all their faculties, which ultimately means, to quote from The Simpsons, someone whose work looks like it could have been created by mental patients, the homeless or a chimpanzee.
Artist after artist praises him for the purity and honesty of his music. Yeah, it’s honestly the most personal and painful music ever committed to audio tape, but that doesn’t make it listenable.
Kurt Cobain brought Daniel to international attention when British weekly music mags like NME and MelodyMaker took pictures of him wearing a t-shirt with one of Daniel’s designs. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Kurt hadn’t even heard of Daniel Johnston, let alone his music, when the photos were taken.
Stacks of people have covered Johnston’s songs: everyone from Yo La Tengo to Beck, but they sure as hell rewrote the songs to their liking, and toned down the clumsiness and repetitiveness of his amateurish music and lyrics. You feel a certain goodwill towards him when his performances are shown over the course of the documentary, but you still feel faintly embarrassed, like you’re watching a sixteen-year-old kid wanting attention and singing the “I’m a little teapot” song at Christmas lunch. Sure it’s sweet, but it’s creepy, too.
Just like this documentary. I wish Daniel and his long-suffering family all the best, I really do, but I can’t see myself praising him as a lost, mad genius to anyone I know and like. It makes the fact that I think this documentary is strong even more of a testament to the director’s skill. It really is a well put together documentary about a difficult person and difficult subject matter. It gives hope to crazy people everywhere.
7 levels of magnitude upon which it is amazing that Daniel and his poor dad survived the plane flight from hell out of 10
“True love will find you in the end.” – The Devil and Daniel Johnston.