Daniel Johnston is probably the only alt-music legend to have played CBGB mere hours after being released, on account of a clerical error, from Bellevue Hospital. How could his life not become a movie? A hero to the likes of Kurt Cobain and the Flaming Lips, and an unwitting heir to the wounded-recluse legacy of Brian Wilson, the Sacramento-born visual artist and singer-songwriter has suffered terribly from bipolar disorder, even as his art and his esteem have profited from it. That unsettling truth is at the center of Jeff Feuerzeig’s Sundance-darling documentary, which maps a familiar but still fascinating sector of the madness-genius continuum and manages to venerate its subject without exploiting him.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston assembles an engrossing mosaic of Johnston’s tormented life—many pieces of which already existed in the drawings and tapes he made in his fundamentalist parents’ rural Virginia basement as a teenager, and in the lore that later grew up around him in the Austin music scene. Johnston is still revered because his songs lack both polish and inhibition, and Feuerzeig’s longer view of his legacy boils down to an affecting portrait of fragile, frenetic, arrested adolescence.
“He suddenly lost all his wonderful confidence,” the beleaguered Mabel Johnston recalls, early in the film, of her son’s middle-school years. “And I guess that was the beginning of his illness.” From there, the talent and the illness seemed to develop in parallel.
Perhaps inadvertently mimicking its subject’s apparent aversion to repose, the film modulates between talking-head testimonials, slide-like arrays of stills, and patches of Johnston’s own oddly bewitching animation and other inventive Super-8 ditties. Feuerzeig’s narrative arrangement has the loose, honest logic of an aficionado’s accumulation of Johnstonalia—which, excepting a dentist’s-chair interview with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, tends toward the highly (if morbidly) watchable.
Eventually the surplus of audio material forces Feuerzeig to resort to visual filler: subjectively photographed, un-peopled recreations of the young artist’s formative experiences. Easily enough, this topples into silliness, as in the over-composed, slowly swooping shots of corn dogs and Porta-Potties that commemorate Johnston’s running away to a carnival. But it also can work unnervingly well, as in a staging of the manic episode in which a febrile-minded Johnston alighted too soon from a bus, wandered through an unfamiliar town and burst into an old woman’s second-story apartment, frightening her into jumping out her own window. Demons made her do it, he later said.
Apart from the one-way transmissions on his tapes—containing not just songs, but also copious recorded journals—most of the testimony comes not from Johnston himself, but from varied character witnesses. It’s probably for the best; that remoteness keeps Johnston from getting too endearing, and protects Feuerzeig from spending an entire film insisting on his protagonist’s covert magnificence.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston doesn’t lay blame for Johnston’s troubles on his parents’ religiosity, nor on the crass scenester culture that would, and did, romanticize his mental illness into a fashion statement. But it does expose the uncomfortable irony that his family’s failure to steer him clear of depressive self-absorption (those basement tapes had titles like Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain) actually was a boon to the players and fans of underground music, who still deeply appreciate the naked, bleating purity of Johnston’s songs. It does get across the idea that Johnston’s own maturation may have been unavailable to him but in a way has been taken up by the other musicians his work has inspired.
And so, to certain temperaments, Feuerzeig’s film might seem affirming; to others, obliquely cautionary. In any case, by telling the tough back story of Johnston’s guileless, wrenching music, The Devil and Daniel Johnston says what’s hardest to hear about the real costs of creativity. They may have a better name for it now, and better treatments, but still nothing to undo the fact that, as Jimi Hendrix warned at around the time young Johnston first took up the creative life, “manic depression is a frustrating mess.”