Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

Sponsored links

Director Jeff Feuerzeig will speak about himself, but only reluctantly. Ask about what he’s done for the last decade and he speaks of his paid work only sketchily. “Television commercials have paid the rent my whole life. Wal-Mart and LensCrafters and burgers and chicken.... I’m just a filmmaker trying to get by in our corporate society and not sell my soul to the devil.”

But ask him about Daniel Johnston and you’ll get an earful.

Genius at Work?

Feuerzeig kicks back in Denver
Feuerzeig kicks back in Denver

Feuerzeig’s newest film is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary portrait of — let’s qualify this — a man some call a genius.

Look at Daniel Johnston’s art and you might think of Napoleon Dynamite’s notebook, doodled with cartoons of superheroes and strange beasts. (At an exhibition in an L.A. gallery, Johnston hangs his work with scotch tape.) Listen to Johnston’s music and you can tell a lot of it was recorded on cassette in his basement. His piano playing is better than his guitar, but you wouldn’t call either one particularly polished. (“Virtuosity is incredibly overrated in our society,” says Feuerzeig.)

Nevertheless, more and more fans are calling Johnston a creative genius. “Absolutely. Unquestionably,” says Feuerzeig. Sensing my skepticism, he explains, “it would be premature of you to walk away from the movie and assess a guy’s entire musical career, because the film’s goal is not in any way to introduce you to all of his music. If you download his early albums and spend a little time with him, you will realize what Tom Waits has realized — and David Bowie and Beck and Kurt Cobain have realized — that the guy is a musical and folk music genius.”

Not to mention the fact that his artwork has been selected for the 2006 Whitney Biennial in New York City.

Flashing Back

But the goal of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is not to convince you of Johnston’s brilliance. Rather, it’s to paint a portrait of madness and creativity the likes of which you probably haven’t seen since Crumb.

The documentary has a satisfying flashback shape to it. We see Daniel as he looks today, obese, with a childlike face, a bush of gray hair, still singing. We are told that he is an important person in the worlds of art and music, and that he has had serious mental problems, but we don’t know exactly what they are. And then Feuerzeig takes us into the past.

Johnston’s creative juices were flowing as early as high school, when he was skinny, with a childlike face, a bush of brown hair, and singing. Johnston may have stood out in his own high school, but not necessarily in America at large. Every high school has a character like Daniel Johnston: artistic, creative, a little nerdy, maybe a little obsessive. The difference is that Johnston’s post-school life never flattened out into the normal, boring existence of most of us high school grads.

At community college, Johnston met his life-long muse, Laurie. She inspired (and continues to inspire) some of Johnston’s best songs. But the love was unrequited. Laurie eventually married an undertaker, and Johnston eventually left town. He joined a circus, got his first gig without having been auditioned, crashed a party thrown by MTV, and carved a niche for himself in the Austin music scene while working at McDonald’s. All before the second half of his life, which really gets interesting.

The Laurie Factor

In the movie, we never see Laurie as she looks today, an excellent decision by Feuerzeig. “We found these super-8 films that Daniel had made as a young man, and we found the film of Laurie in college. She’s so flirtatious and beautiful, we realized that she was frozen in time, preserved forever.”

But Laurie looms so large in Daniel’s work that before making the film, Feuerzeig wasn’t sure whether Laurie really existed, or whether she was just a seed of inspiration in Daniel’s mind. But she is real, and it’s the first question Feuerzeig is usually asked at Q&As. “It’s the one question everybody wants to know, and now we can answer it.” A year has passed since The Devil and Daniel Johnston premiered at Sundance, and much has happened.

Feuerzeig says, “we brought [Laurie] to South by Southwest, as a surprise for Daniel. He had been asking about her for four years. We brought her in, surprised Daniel. She’s now divorced from the undertaker. She’s beautiful, articulate. She commanded a huge Q&A; handled herself beautifully. She and Daniel had a reunion on this porch and we videoed it for 2 hours. Daniel proposed marriage no less than three times. It was wonderful.”

Feuerzeig says that Laurie had saved “every drawing, every notebook, every cassette tape that he’d given her.” He hasn’t seen the archive yet, but will be traveling to Ohio in the spring of 2006 to take a look. We can expect a lot of Laurie on the eventual DVD release of the film.

But Is It Art?

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there would really be a movie about this guy unless he were some sort of celebrity. There’s Stevie (Steve James, 2002) and Best Boy (Ira Wohl, 1979), so yes, it’s possible to make The Devil and Daniel Johnston without the whole “fame” angle.

But it is exactly that angle that makes this documentary more than just a movie about mental illness. It’s also about art, and what art is. Is “virtuosity” necessary, helpful, or overrated? Is Daniel as good as they say, or is it because “they” say he’s so good that makes it so?

Pressed to describe Johnston’s genius to a layman, Feuerzeig explains, “Daniel Johnston, for reasons probably due to his manic depression, is able to express himself without the filter of the public and private life. It is the most raw, purest emotion that could ever be expressed in song. His unrequited love songs bring people to tears. He really touches people in a deep, deep way.

“What he’s done is subverted everything that music is supposed to sound like and what art is supposed to look like. I assure you that when Jackson Pollock splashed paint on the wall, the whole world did not line up and say ‘yes!’ — and,” Feuerzeig adds truthfully, “I’m not trying to impose my opinion on you or the audience.”

Whether you think Johnston is another Jackson Pollock or another Napoleon Dynamite, you’ll find food for thought in The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies

  • doesnt matter: Marty Mapes, open your mind! February 15, 2009 reply
    • Marty Mapes: ... Done! February 16, 2009 reply