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DVD Review: The Devil And Daniel Johnston

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I first watched The Devil And Daniel Johnston five nights past with the dawn set for tickling the window glass beside me and a head like a pickled arse perched top my shoulders. Fried with insomnia and lust and exhausted on account of the scribbling of a novel and what have you, in this state I hit play on the DVD Disc Spinneroo doohickey, hit play says I and watched as the aforementioned motion picture, Jeff Feuerzeig's most beautiful and harrowing and distressing and life-affirming 2005 documentary affair concerning the singer/songwriter/artist of the title and the sundry terrors and torments and highs and lows rattling around his brain-bumps, watched as that particular masterwork bled o'er the screen and on across the carpet.

It swole up there and then and some two hours later it faded from the screen and I finally fell asleep with its myriad majesties still racing round the skull like rabid sprites afire with The Lord.

I've watched it a further three times since then and still I got the thirst of a thousand hounds gnawing at the throat for to see it again.

I announced with great zeal to all who cared to listen, "Hear me now, you must see this picture, for it is surely a fucking-well glorious slab o' cinema!"

I flung emails left and right and did evangelize its wonders to my lady-friend, Beautiful Ms Gillian, who watched and was similarly awe-struck.

Sat on a park-bench I yelled at a young lad with the eyeliner and the elbow-pads and the strides jutting six feet out past his legs all directions. I yelled and hollered; "You, have you seen The Devil And Daniel Johnston, for judging by that Pitchfork Media shirt I dare say you'd love every frame."

He'd shrugged. "I've seen head nor tail of it. The hell is it, anyroad, pray tell?"

"It's a documentary about Daniel Johnston."

"The Banana Pancakes fella?"

"Moses oh, he is not!"

"Well who?"

Here's who, says I, and then got to telling him all about it.

Daniel Johnston, see, is a singer/songwriter and artist and sometime filmmaker done made his name on the back of a series of self-produced, self-recorded, self-analyzing cassette tapes filled with beautiful, fragile, pop songs recorded on tape decks hung o'er chord organs in basements reeking of religious mania, loneliness and frustration.

He sang of King Kong and of Casper The Friendly Ghost and of the unrequited love for an undertaker's wife (the near-mythic Laurie) informs his work to this very day. He sang in a high-pitched child-like voice wrapped round a series of gorgeous, disarmingly simple melodies, and bounced the lot through a prism of core preoccupations; Satan, Christianity, lost love, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…

Somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, be it the LSD dabbling or the zealous religious fundamentalism 'round about him or just one of these things happens to folks, for whatever reason, Daniel Johnston got very ill of the mind.

He's still very ill of the mind, living with his parents who care for him and make sure he stays on his medication and take him to the supermarket once a week, when he isn't off touring the art-galleries and music halls of the world.

This is the tale The Devil And Daniel Johnston seeks to tell.

Like some delirious amalgam of Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing The Friedmans, Ondi Timoner's DiG!, Chad Friedrichs' Jandek On Corwood and Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies, Feuerzeig's picture incorporates home movies, cassette tape recordings, animation, performance footage, fresh interview material and Johnston's own super-8 short films for to create a dazzling tapestry runs the very width and breadth of Daniel Johnston's life and work and illness.

It wants to tell you all there is to tell of this most mythologized of alternative heroes, but it also wants to poke around the fringes o' that Genius/Madness divide, it wants to examine the same Fractured Masculine Brain-Mess Muddle filmmakers have been obsessing over for as long as anyone cares to remember, certainly since Jimmy Stewart was leaning against the bar cracking no end o' wise with an invisible rabbit, it wants to follow the trail of Fight Club and The Machinist and any number of recent Lonely Male Adrift In His Own Head pictures.

It wants to do all of this and to tell us any number of unbelievable stories and anecdotes.

In-between jaunts to this mental hospital or the other, see, Daniel found himself at the center of an array of oft-times terrifying and mostly heartbreaking dramas and escapades and foibles. A trip to New York to hang with Sonic Youth for a few days ends with Johnston running off into the night hollering wild-eyed about how Satan is trying to keep him from staying in the city and dammit, he's going no-place, y'hear, so stop tryin' to send him home. An incredibly sympathetic deal with Electra Records ends with Daniel firing his manager on account of how he's evil, and Electra are evil, and a band on their roster, Metallica, are hell-bent on beating the singer-songwriter to death for reasons of Satan and such. His father flies him back from a show in a tiny airplane, only to have Daniel pulling the keys out the thing mid-flight and bringing the lot crashing into a load o' trees.

Recounting the details of this latter story, Bill Johnston breaks down, near choking on the tears have him slumped o'er his chair shaking his head with anguish and fear and disbelief.

Yes, there's a lot of weeping goes on in The Devil And Daniel Johnston, and to be sure, it's got the potential for dragging a litre or two out the eyes of the viewer, also. But it'll get a lot of smiles, too, and even, of occasion, a couple genuine guffaws.

Feuerzeig treats his subject with all the respect and sympathy you could hope for (his excellent commentary track reveals him to be a genuine fan of the fella, pointing out this masterpiece and that work of genius from the stacks of cassette tapes appearing onscreen now and again, or commenting on the brilliance of Daniel's super-8 movies), but he also knows that there's a lot of humor waiting to be mined out the source material.

At one point, for example, we're treated to an audio letter sent by Daniel during one particular spell in the hospital, a letter sent to his manager in which he performs a jingle he hopes will earn him a sponsorship deal with Mountain Dew. The jingle, as with sundry other Johnston compositions, concerns itself with sin and hellfire, and ends with the singer making distorted demon noises into the microphone, yelling about "Drink Mountain Dew… oooooooooooowwwwwww" and so on.

When the tape ends, the manager appears onscreen. "I sent that off" he says, "But the Pepsi Corporation never got back to me…"

In addition to all this biographical tomfoolery, The Devil And Daniel Johnston raises and explores a number of questions can't help but flitter through the mind when the subject being discussed is an individual such as this.

For one thing, it makes a fella think long and hard about that aforementioned Genius/Madness thing, and sheds new light on it altogether when one interviewee says about he's always had great disdain for the friends and acquaintances of, say, Van Gogh, folks who didn't recognize the incredible talents and saw only a sick man needing cured. He used to tut with regards those folks, but then he finds himself in the company of Daniel Johnston and eventually, all he can do for the good of the afflicted and of everyone else, is have Daniel put in a hospital.

It's all well and good saying madness is just an intractable part of the Great Artist's psyche and they need it to produce the kindsa works they're producing, but what about when that Artist is your best friend and he's stood knee deep in a river splashing water about the place and yelling about deliverance and redemption and The Devil? What about when that friend is trying to rid the demons out an elderly woman who ends up bounding out a second story window to escape, breaking both her ankles in the process?

What then?

Also, a fella can't help but wonder how much of Daniel Johnston's appeal has to do with the kinda appeal brought folks out into the fog-spun Victorian night to gaze upon John Merrick's elephantine face.

Certainly there's a feeling not far removed from that must hug the head of the voyeur stood watching a man masturbate through the bedroom curtains, there's a definite feeling such as that, I say, wafts about the place when the footage of Daniel, obviously away with it, weeping through a performance of "Don't Play Cards With Satan" in a living room or of "Careless Soul" at a small concert, when that kinda footage gets to lingering onscreen.

But no matter. Whether or not one feels Daniel Johnston's songs and paintings are works of skull-frying, awe-inspiring genius or the tuneless wailing and artless scribbling of a skull-fried manic depressive being exploited beyond all sense, this has no bearing on the film under consideration herein.

Which, I'm reminding the fella in the park, is a marvelous, marvelous piece of work, up there with the very best flicks of the year thus far — your United 93's and Proposition's and Munich's and The Squid And The Whale's and whatever else you care to mention.

"But it was last year," he says.

"Shut up" says I, "It was released in the United UK in 2006 and that's as much as we need to concern ourselves with."

The Devil And Daniel Johnston is available on Region 2 DVD through Tartan Video, and has a set of glorious extras to compliment the feature. There's the commentary track, but also a selection of Daniel's flicks and some Deleted Scenes, one of which has Daniel and his dad travel to South Africa so as the former might appear on a telly show and also star in some kinda video has him stood in a field dressed up as King Kong, climbing a ladder represents the Empire State Building whilst Bill Johnston races about with 1930's aviation gear on, a toy bi-plane in his hand.

Also, hidden away in the Featurettes menu alongside a recording of a brilliantly daft WFMU radio broadcast which begins with Daniel spoofing Orson Welles' War Of The Worlds affair, tucked to the side of that is footage of the man finally, after twenty-something years of obsessing about her and with God alone knows how many songs and pictures and writings etched in her name, finally being reunited with Laurie, his muse.

She doesn't appear in the film itself outside of super-8 footage shot by Daniel way back when, since, as the filmmakers themselves say, it's better to have her appear in the flick as she appears in Daniel's head.

But there she is, arriving at a screening of the feature for to take questions and what have you, but not meeting the fella himself till a party afterwards, on account of he was reluctant to come onstage during the event because he believed this "Laurie" to be a hoaxer. The two of them hug a half-dozen times and Daniel announces that this is the happiest day of his life. "I dunno what to say… Will you marry me?" Folks laugh at this, but it doesn't seem like Daniel's much joking, to be honest.

"So," I'm saying. "That's as much as there is to tell."

The skater/emo/whatever fella, he sniffs a time or two and then, screwing up his face, he says "I dunno. Does it have robots?"

"Yeah" I lie. "Thousands o' the bastards."

I went home for to listen to Hi, How Are You? and think about that review I need to be writing concerning The Devil And Daniel Johnston.

Thanks folks.

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About The Duke

  • DJRadiohead

    Duke, I had never heard of Daniel Johnston before reading this. My mind feels bewitched to the point of knowing I need to see this film. Heartbreaking.

  • Duke De Mondo

    DJ, thanks for checkin in! I dunno how you’d react to Mr Johnston’s music, but there’s no doubting the flick is a thing of incredible beauty. Some of Daniel’s music is, also, but much more of an acquired taste.

  • DJRadiohead

    He sounds fascinating as a subject regardless of what I might think of his music. I am going to have to see this.