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The Devil and Daniel Johnston

USA 2005
Directed by
Jeff Feuerzeig
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4 stars

The Devil And Daniel Johnston

Synopsis: Almost impossible to believe, if it weren’t actually true. The story of Daniel Johnston, a talented musician and artist afflicted by severe manic depression. Loved by people like Kurt Cobain, Beck and Matt Groening, covered by innumerable musicians, he’s the most amazing person you’ve probably never heard of.

Daniel Johnston is a remarkable man. His music is at once rough, raw and beautiful. Like Will Oldham or Neil Young, it’s not like he’s got a beautiful voice, but it’s honest and truthful. His talent is obvious, there’s something about his songs that you just can’t shake, the imperfections are what make it beautiful. And this is much the same for the man, so tormented by his mental state that he sees the Devil in many things.

This documentary has some similarities with DiG!, which also chronicles the life of an unstable musical talent. But while that film was a story about the music and musicians, this is more about the man and his family. Daniel’s parents are in many ways the heroes of the story, and their fear for their son once they’re gone is palpable. It’s not an over-protective love, it’s a solid realism that he needs looking after, and there’s nobody else around to do it. The most potent illustration of this is also one of the film’s most affecting moments. Daniel’s father weepingly recounts how he was piloting a plane to take Daniel home, unaware he was off his meds. Daniel suddenly was possessed of a manic energy and forced the plane to crash. That they both survived is a miracle, and the peril of looking after Daniel is thrown into sharp relief. He’s not just a misunderstood and temperamental artist, he’s a danger to himself and others, he really is unstable. That such talent and such innocent danger can reside in the one person, with all the attendant complexity that brings to the family unit, is staggering. The force of his parent’s love for him is strong, and you feel it, and you feel for them when they acknowledge they can’t always cope.

He doesn’t just make music though, he prints t-shirts, draws and paints. Kurt Cobain wore one of his t-shirts constantly when Nirvana first hit big. The strange freaky frog creature from his album Hi, How Are You? became a constant source of questions for Cobain. What was the t-shirt, why did he wear it all the time? And from this, Daniel Johnston became famous. Record deals happened, but then fell apart as his unpredictable nature sabotaged everything. Whilst it’s understood that Johnston is mentally ill, his former manager still promotes his work and none of the people we see who have suffered from his erratic nature seems to hold much bitterness about it.

Daniel Johnston is a man unlike any you have probably ever met. His story is full of joy as well as sorrow, a rags to almost-riches back to rags tale which is still going strong. He rose to fame on the back of an unshakeable optimism and the end of the film shows that he is still going strong. There’s a reason people love him, and after you see this film it will be hard not to love him too.




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