The Devil Inside
Thursday, June 1, 2006
Like Syd Barrett, the mad mastermind behind Pink Floyd’s early works, and Brian Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys who notoriously spent a whole year in bed, Daniel Johnston’s story is one of the most interesting and strange chapters in rock ‘n’ roll’s brief history. Johnston—who recently was honored with a 2004 tribute album featuring cover versions of his material by heavyweight artists like Beck, Tom Waits and The Flaming Lips—is known for creating deceptively simple songs about love and cartoon characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost delivered with off-key vocals and solo guitar or keyboard accompaniment.
The superb documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which won director Jeff Feuerzeig a Best Director of Documentary Film award at 2005’s Sundance Film Festival, begins with the musician’s parents recalling the musician’s artistic inclinations at a young age. From there, Johnston’s story becomes more and more surreal after his first love marries a mortician and the budding musician ends up in Austin, Texas after a stint with a traveling carnival.
In Austin, Johnston became a music sensation after getting his homemade tapes—which the musician sometimes couldn’t duplicate with a tape recorder spurring him to actually re-record each album in its entirety—into the hands of scribes at the Austin Chronicle and other local music luminaries. Though his career seemed to be on the rise, in part due to an appearance on MTV, Johnston’s mental illness, a severe manic-depressive psychosis, started to seep into his everyday life after he took a hit of LSD at a Butthole Surfers’ concert.
While most documentaries would have to rely primarily on interviews with the subject’s friends and family or ill conceived re-enactments, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is impressive because the musician gets to tell a lot of his own story. This is because Johnston was constantly recording or videotaping himself even in the deepest depths of his illness. Therefore, you actually get to hear recordings of Johnston himself being scolded by a police officer after tagging the staircase of the Statue of Liberty with hundreds of drawings of Christian fish or ranting about a conspiracy involving a Christmastime military takeover, candy bars and Nazis Germany. Possibly more disturbing is a segment where Johnston explains what happens to people afflicted with his own mental illness. The effect of hearing and seeing someone wrestling with inner demons and hallucinations is the most gripping thing filmed since Timothy Treadwell spilled his guts on camera in Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary Grizzly Man.
What sets The Devil and Daniel Johnston apart from the typical VH1 Behind the Music story arc—rise, drugs or other self indulgences, fall—is that Johnston’s problems were not caused by typical rock star overindulgences but rather by a shadowy mental disease within. For that reason alone, The Devil and Daniel Johnston should even appeal to people unfamiliar with the musician’s diamond in the rough music.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. • Starring Daniel Johnston. • PG-13, 110 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.