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The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The iconic indie singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston is one of those prolific underground, self-produced polymaths that casual contemporary music fans often hear cited as influential by their favorite artists. But Johnston's own music is so far removed from mainstream channels that most can go a lifetime without ever hearing a note of his eccentric original performances. Or when they do hear a clip of Johnston's über-lo-fi acoustical ramblings, they may just scratch their heads, laugh, and chalk his reputation up to the hip eccentricity of other artists. In one of the best recent musical documentaries, 2006's The Devil and Daniel Johnston (comparable in depth to the equally excellent DiG!), director Jeff Feuerzeig fashions an exceptional profile of this most bizarre character — whose cult-fueled career has been defined by his severe bouts with mental illness — in a portrait that should deeply touch Johnston's fans while also relating to the uninitiated why this offbeat and troubled performer is held in such high esteem by his peers. With the aid of Johnston's incessant self-memorializing in the form of voluminous home movies and cassette taped audio diaries, Feuerzeig chronicles Johnston's evolution from a precociously talented teenager whose creative derivations were not appreciated by his religious West Virginian family, to the wayward young man who accidentally stumbled into minor fame during the height of Austin, Texas's pivotal arts scene of the mid-1980s, before he reemerges in his forties as a bloated casualty of the ravaging war within his mind. Singing his rough, deeply personal songs in a shaky voice that never broke from its pre-pubescently self-absorbed tenor, the same psychological fragility that may have sabotaged Johnston's career also infused his work with the frailty that was crucial in making his homemade tales of woe so raw and resonant. As Johnston's popularity grew within musical circles — and recreational drugs began to wear away at his tenuous link with sanity — his grasp on reality withered, and he moved in and out of jail, nightclubs, and mental hospitals as his creative breakthroughs alternated with violent outbursts and long periods of medication-induced inactivity.

When the grunge revolution kickstarted an indie music lottery in the 1990s, and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain wore out his T-shirt featuring Johnston's cover art, the big record labels started to aggressively court the commercially allergic and institutionalized Daniel Johnston, but his erratic mental state (with an increasing paranoia that Satan is engineering his rise to fame) conspired in heartbreakingly figurative and literal crashes that threatened to destroy Johnston and his most important relationships. Even those who are not fully captivated by Johnston's amateurish and wauling performances of his sometimes imperfectly lovely music should find in The Devil and Daniel Johnston a riveting look inside the psyche of a serious manic depressive. Viewers may also find themselves confronted by many provocative questions about the relationship between insanity and art, and both the disturbing fetishizing of instability by consumers of art and the value systems that feature emotional breakdowns as entertainment at the expense of the performer. Feuerzeig brilliantly assembles the broken pieces of Johnston's history, and its many casualties, vividly recreating the musician's frames of mind through impressionistic dramatizations that never feel precious — or, at least, appropriately precious as Johnston himself. The film is anchored by wonderfully painful recollections from Johnston's conservative, sorely tested, but loving parents, who may be treated with subtle scorn at the outset but emerge as the movie's unsung heroes. Sony presents The Devil and Daniel Johnston on DVD in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc includes a commentary with Feuerzeig and producer Henry S. Rosenthal, as well as deleted and extended scenes, featurettes about the movie's world premiere at Sundance, Daniel's reunion with his muse Laurie, an audio track of his "legendary" 15-minute broadcast at WFMU, three short films by Johnston, and extended excerpts from his audio diaries. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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