"The best singer-songwriter alive today" is how Daniel Johnston is introduced at the start of Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Those unfamiliar with the artist may be taken aback by the accompanying footage, shot during a 2001 performance: An overweight, shaky middle-aged man sings some weird lyrics in a creaky, lispy voice while strumming a guitar. Not hip to this? Stay tuned, as Feuerzeig turns back the clock to show us Johnston's long, strange trip from skinny kid adrift with mental illness to internationally heralded genius.
Johnston's story is told in a straightforward narrative, beginning with his childhood in the northern West Virginia panhandle, where Johnston's early artistic abilities baffled and frustrated his religious-conservative parents. Feuerzeig incorporates plenty of archival footage with interviews of Johnston's various collaborators, friends and family members.
But much of Devil is comprised of Johnston's own voice: In his self-absorption and fervent need to communicate, Johnston never stopped documenting his life ... through artwork, songs, homemade films and videos, and most especially, cassette recordings. These audiotapes are a life-long aural diary of his hopes, plans and madness that Feuerzeig uses as an illuminating internal monologue.
After some bobbled attempts at college and career, in 1983, Johnston found himself in, of all lucky places, Austin, Texas ... a town noted for its embrace of iconoclastic musicians. In a hyper-charged manic phase, Johnston took the town by storm, forcing his homemade music tapes on all. Accolades and even an appearance on MTV's alternative-music show The Cutting Edge quickly followed. But the attention he desired had barely knocked when Johnston had a mental breakdown (apparently spurred in part by a particularly outrageous Butthole Surfers concert).
Thus kicked off two decades of breakdowns, erratic behavior, and creative highs and lows that altered Johnston's path to fame. He would never be an MTV darling ... almost overnight he'd become instead a bloated, delusional, raving, religious maniac obsessed with fighting Satan ... but he was inadvertently laying the groundwork to become a much-lauded cult figure.
While Johnston's wildly fluctuating life is a bizarre and compelling melodrama ... "a wake of creation and destruction," one pal calls it ... what held my thoughts was the larger issues the film dredges up.
Devil asks us to consider the role of madness in creativity, and wonders whether we embrace and even celebrate mental illness if it validates our romantic notions about genius. As Louis Black, Austin Chronicle editor and a longtime Johnston correspondent, notes, it's all very fine in the abstract ... say, your Van Goghs and Plaths ... but it's another thing when you have to institutionalize your friend in the middle of the night.
And Johnston suffered from more than the standard madness-and-creativity double package. He wasn't immune from the late-20th century desire for fame, and this compulsion made Johnston's condition even more manic and frustrating: Johnston came to believe he'd sold his soul to the devil for his opportunities, thus creating an irresolvable conflict between his two primary goals: fame and fighting Satan.
Furthermore, I wonder, what changes for us when figures such as Johnston, who is perhaps no different from any other babbling man we pass by in distaste on the street, are given imprimaturs by Spin and Thurston Moore? When digging the crazy guy becomes a mark of our exquisite tastes, and thus part of our vanity? In that realm of I'll-prove-it-by-being-different, it's easy to see Johnston's appeal, his "genius purity," in a world of test-marketed rock 'n' roll cut-outs. Yet ironically, without that same media machine fawning over him for being "outside," Johnston wouldn't exist, either.
Feuerzeig is clearly a devoted fan of Johnston's work, though the film is never a hard sell, nor exploitive. It's ultimately your call whether Johnston truly is a creative genius ... his lo-fi, awkward performance isn't for everyone, and his quirky songs and drawings range from amusing to baffling to devastatingly insightful. (Curiously absent from this film is any discussion of money ... and whether Johnston is benefiting in fair and legitimate ways from his works, including the many of his songs recorded by big-name artists. Let's hope for the best.)
The fact that enough influential folks do believe Johnston is a rare talent continues to sustain him in the fickle arena of fame. But the film ends on a note of anxiety: an open question of what will become of Johnston when his caretaker parents die ... and, left unstated, what might happen if and when he ceases to be this hipster generation's darling.
Now living in a Houston suburb with his parents, Johnston seems medicated to the point of somnambulism. He continues to perform and draw, but a critic might say he's living on the fumes of his former mania, and on a peculiar sort of trend-driven notoriety. He certainly remains a lost soul ... still pining for the girl, searching for the fame that never was, and struggling to keep the devil at bay.
Yet in his torment, Johnston keeps a childlike faith in eventual fulfillment: "Don't give up until ..." he keens in his quaky, sincere voice, during on the film's last segments. "True love will find you in the end." Maybe, maybe not ... but at least he got his story out, which is no easy feat either.