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Michelle Thomas

Published May 4th, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

The Devil and Daniel Johnston Review

Classification: 12A Director: Jeff Feuerzeig Rating: 3.5/5

Never heard of Daniel Johnston? Bet you’ve heard his songs though – he’s been covered by artists ranging from Beck to the Butthole Surfers and Kurt Cobain was a fan and champion. But Johnston isn’t just a talented songwriter, hailed by critics as an American original, a folk legend. His story is more bizarre than that.

Born in 1961, in California, the youngest of five children in a fundamentalist Christian household, as a teenager, Daniel was endlessly creative – he directed home movies in which he acted out all the roles, drew and illustrated comic books, wrote, and composed music. Leaving school, he recorded two albums on cassette, illustrating the covers himself. At one point he lived with a travelling carnival, which took him to Austin, Texas. Daniel happily gave his music away, but local shops started selling the tapes, leading to an appearance on MTV. Daniel became a minor celebrity, and, recognised as a new talent, other, more commercial bands began to embrace him. He signed with Atlantic Records in 1992 and seemed set for success.

But all this time Daniel was battling with mental illness. The manic depression that underscored his intensely creative nature and made him so prolific also caused him endless problems. If there’s any truth in the adage that genius and madness go hand-in-hand, Daniel Johnston is living proof of it.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fascinating look at a very unusual creative mind. It blends archive material of the young Daniel, photography and films, with current footage, interviews and music.

The nineties were probably his most difficult decade. The subject of a bidding war, he signed with Atlantic while in a mental hospital. His family, initially unsupportive of a career that they saw as useless, are fascinating. It would be easy to dismiss them, but for once we see fundamentalists who seem to be trying to live up to the tenets of their faith. Daniel lives with his parents, who take care of him; his dad, now in his eighties, is manager of Daniel’s band, The Nightmares. His dad tells some terribly painful stories, including one where Daniel nearly killed them both – and we see first hand how difficult and frustrating living with a genius must be.

It’s a shock to see archive footage of skinny eighteen-year old and realise that the fragile, bloated singer of today is the same person. A decade on drugs has balanced out Daniel’s condition but taken its toll on his physique. Apparently many people with bi-polar disorders dislike taking the medication – it stops the depression, but also the mania that often comes with a bonus of insight, creativity and brilliance. Daniel now apparently comes off his meds before performing live, and has to balance this very carefully so as not to go off the rails again.

Daniel seems to inspire an incredibly loyalty in his friends and fans. We see Daniel’s former manager, Jeff Tartakov, who still makes copies of Daniel’s tapes and sends them to fans all over the world. Others from his early days in Austin are proud and pleased that Daniel is doing so well. Slowly but surely, Daniel is fulfilling his dream of becoming a star, bringing his tenderly personal, bittersweet songs to the world.


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