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Friday, Oct. 6, 2006
Failing to tame a beast within
There have been any number of musician-based documentaries hitting the screens over the past few years -- from Bob Moog to Metallica -- but perhaps none have had as obscure a subject as "The Devil And Daniel Johnston."
In fact, just recognizing the name "Daniel Johnston" is a sign of how deeply underground and antimainstream one's musical tastes reside.
For most people, their exposure -- if any -- to Johnston came from Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's penchant for wearing a T-shirt bearing a Johnston-drawn album cover: a stalk-eyed frog with the hand-scrawled slogan, "Hi, How Are You." Anyone searching out Johnston's very hard-to-find music (much of it then on cassette) would instantly recognize the qualities that must have resonated with Cobain: A childlike naivete and an unmistakable aura of mental illness.
Johnston's music has never found a wide audience, despite the support of the alt-rock cognoscenti. Although Johnston's songs bear a painful emotional honesty and a knack for quirky hooks, for most listeners he comes off as the sound of someone trying to be a singer . . . and not succeeding. As his once girlfriend Kathy McCarty puts it in the film, "A lot of the music he had recorded was, to the general public, unlistenable." But you don't necessarily need to think Johnston's a "genius" -- as some over-eager critics bill him -- to enjoy this documentary. This is clearly the best portrait of the artist as a madman since Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb," a look at underground cartoonist Robert Crumb.
Much like Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," "The Devil And Daniel Johnston" benefits greatly from its subject's penchant for recording his own life. On home movies, felt-tip pen drawings, and -- most of all -- on cheap C-90 cassette tapes loaded with confessional monologues, Johnston endlessly detailed his joys, fears, and obsessions, most of which also wound up in his music.
Director Jeff Feuerzeig takes us back to the 1970s in Virginia, when Daniel was still in junior high school. His mother notes, dryly, that "he was always different," and we are shown Daniel's school art project -- a can of "Dead Dog's Eyeball Soup" -- to make the point. Like many a creative teen, Daniel enjoyed drawing comic art, shooting silly home movies, and dreaming of being in a band. Unlike others, however, his art never progressed -- decades later, his drawings still look like something scrawled on the back of a notebook during class, his music still sounds like someone still trying to get their head around rhythms and chords. And yet the pure innocence of first contact with art, the awkward attempts at self-expression before technique has caught up, also ring true.
Daniel's mother notes that in junior high, "he suddenly lost all his confidence." He retreated to his parents' basement -- a prototypical hikikomori (recluse) -- and engaged in off-kilter art that his conservative Christian parents found disturbing. Sent off to college, he soon freaked out, wound up at his brother's house and recorded an album's worth of songs on an organ and a cheap mike in the garage. Within months he would run away to join the circus, get beaten up for taking too long in a port-a-potty, wind up penniless on the the steps of the Church of Christ, become obsessed with sin and the devil, go on and off medication, work at McDonalds, take acid at a Butthole Surfers concert and wind up in a mental hospital, where he'd tell people, "I used to be Daniel Johnston."
When you hear Johnston's tuneless, artless voice singing on one of his albums, "I/had lost/my mind," it's clear that its not just a lyric. The more his music caught on, the more he found himself unable to even function in daily life. When major label Elektra wanted to sign him, he refused because they released Metallica's "Master of Puppets," which he thought was "evil."
American counterculture has always shown an affinity for "madness" -- from Kerouac down -- as some sort of expression of purity. The film makes clear, however, that mental illness ain't no fun. Take Steve Shelley, drummer for Sonic Youth -- a band whose appreciation of all things "out there" includes a homage to hippie-mass-murderer Charles Manson -- who invites Johnston to New York to gig and then, when he experiences insanity up close and personal, finds it not so cool and leaves Johnston in the street after a fight. Contrast this with Daniel's normal, Christian parents, who know insanity up close and find nothing "cool" about it, but have it in their hearts to care for their son, no matter what. Even if he just happens to turn off the engine of a private plane and throw the keys out the window while in-flight. True story, see the film.