Documentary filmmakers must dream of a subject as rich in both story and source material as Daniel Johnston. Veteran indie rock fans know Johnston as a guy whose home recordings and fragile, captivating songs fit seamlessly into the DIY, lo-fi ethic of indie music in the late '80s and early '90s. But as his life unfolds in director Jeff Feuerzeig's fascinating documentary, we learn about the manic depression, conflicted spiritualism, unrequited love and rampant Beatle worship that led to Johnston's unlikely career as an internationally respected songwriter and artist.
Daniel Johnston has crafted his own multimedia autobiography since childhood, chronicling his life and thoughts in Super 8 film, audio diaries, taped conversations, drawings and recordings. It's his own work that guides Devil & Daniel's narrative. Thoughtful interviews with his elderly parents reveal Johnston as a rambunctious kid who never followed directions but loved art, creativity and John Lennon; his own home movies depict an early fascination with the themes that would eventually define him. Often the musician's voice alone is narrative enough.
Frequent close-ups of his actual cassette tapes are accompanied by Johnston's wavering, lispy falsetto describing his need to be loved and understood.
In his late teens, his manic depression was officially diagnosed, and his condition ultimately made college impossible. But during a brief stay as an undergrad he met and fell madly, obsessively in love with a girl named Laurie, who became the muse for his earliest albums. Recorded and assembled entirely at home, they're the sparest, most beautiful things, with Johnston's fragile voice resting on rudimentary piano and guitar melodies and cushioned in background static.
He moved to Austin, Texas, in the early '80s and finally got the musical recognition that he'd always craved. Interviews with Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers (who's interviewed while he's getting cavities filled) detail the reaction to Johnston's album Hi, How Are You, his impromptu appearance on MTV, and his manager's crusade to get the music heard nationally.
But even as his simple, graceful songs were finding an audience, his personal demons were taking over. He was committed more than once, his parents struggled to find the right medication, and his friends realized that Johnston's whimsical side was at odds with an obsessive, increasingly delusional mental state. Things took a harrowing turn as he struggled with faith, fame and medication, bottoming out with a fateful trip to New York City to meet Sonic Youth that ended with Johnston being committed once again.
But throughout his struggles, he was creative, loving and thoughtful, and the film is careful to show the sensitivity everyone in Johnston's life has to his condition. There's no theft of the simpleton here, and crazy genius clichés are kept to a minimum. There are plenty of sad moments in The Devil & Daniel Johnston, but they're tempered by Feuerzeig's affection for his subject, and Johnston's own commitment to living his broken dream through art and music.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 28 and 29, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 30. Call 313-833-3237.
Johnny Loftus writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].