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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST OF SANITY

Musical genius at work
Musical genius at work

Daniel Johnston has justifiably been called a musical genius, a gifted artist, and a complete basket case. Johnston is the subject of director Jeff Feuerzeig’s new documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a labor of love that documents Johnston’s ups and downs as he navigates the wild world of professional music through his own twisted perspective. The questions that come to mind when watching this film are, ‘Why tell this story?’ ‘Why document the life of someone most of us have never heard of?’ Well Johnston’s story is fascinating. As long as there have been artists, there have tortured artists: Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Virginia Woolf; all tormented souls from whom creative brilliance blossomed. We can add Daniel Johnston to that list. Johnston is a brilliant musician and artist who suffers from manic depression (bipolar disorder) with illusions of grandeur.

Through traditional, sometimes heartbreaking, interviews with his family, friends, and business associates Feurerzeig leads us through an outsider’s view of the world of Daniel Johnston. As a young man Johnston began to document his own life, creating videos with a small Super 8 camera and recording both conversations with others and his own thoughts on audiocassette. Images and sounds are mixed with the interviews, allowing the viewer to see Johnston’s unique world through his own eyes. The same combination of unflinching honesty and brilliant simplicity that can be found in Johnston’s music and visual art is found in Feuerzeig’s film.

His honesty draws people to Johnston’s music. He covers most every subject, no matter how strange, in his music and art. The entire gamut of human emotion (love, obsession, sadness, depression, joy, hope, shame) shows up in his work. As in his artistic creations, in this film we see everything, the good, the bad, the brilliant, the shameful. “Drove those demons / Out of my head / With an organ and a pencil full of lead / And when I’m dead / I’d like to have it said / He drove those demons out of his head,” from Johnston’s song “Sorry Entertainer.” In The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the viewer is allowed into a usually secretive world, and for once we are privileged to enter the mind of a twisted genius.

The film follows Johnston from a repressive childhood spent in rural West Virginia with devout Christian parents who saw his artistic desires as failure; to the live music hub of the free world, Austin Texas. In Austin, Johnston’s life flourishes – and unravels – following two enormously separate but eerily parallel paths. Johnston’s mental health worsens while his star rises. He climbs from obscure novelty musician to cult hero with fans the world over. He gains the respect of great musicians, such as The Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Davie Bowie, Jad Fair, Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, and The Butthole Surfers. In his brothers garage in Houston Johnston recorded the albums that would define his music, Yip, Jump and Hi, How Are You. The low budget sound combined with honest quirky lyrics would help Johnston find his way to an appearance on the MTV show Cutting Edge in 1985.

His MTV appearance elevated Johnston to mythical status in the Austin music scene earning him awards for Songwriter of the Year and Best Folk Artist at the next years Austin Music Awards and headlining gigs at the city’s annual music festival South by Southwest. At the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt with the illustration from Johnston’s album Hi, How Are You on the front. Afterwards, Johnston’s fame skyrocketed. People wanted to know all they could about the man on Kurt’s T-shirt. Johnston could be found in a bed in the psychiatric wing of the Austin State Hospital entertaining recording contracts from several major record labels. It would seem that every time Johnston gets close to the fame and admiration his music deserves he tumbles again and plummets back into the dark recesses of his own mind. The peaks and valleys of his mental illness mirror those of his musical career. A quote by Johnston as he is walking down the streets of New York City with the members of Sonic Youth sums up his life perfectly, speaking of himself he says, “It is my fate to become famous and to be damned.”

The film serves not only as a biography of the life of Daniel Johnston, but also as a chronicle of the terrifying roller coaster ride that is manic depressive disorder. This is not just the story of a mentally ill man with a guitar who sings songs about devils, rocket ships, unrequited love, and walking cows, it is the story of the human condition. It is the story of one man’s determination to make the world see things through his own unique vision, to allow anyone who will listen into his own extraordinary world. It is a love story that has lasted over two decades, a tale of the love one man has for life, his music, and the girl he may never get.