Daniel Johnston isn't exactly a household name, but in the early 1990s the bipolar visual artist and musician achieved some measure of fame, becoming a hero to Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, and the Flaming Lips. His story is by turns sweet, tragic, funny, terrifying, and absurd -- filled with primal conflict, stardust dreams, and unrequited love. Director Jeff Feuerzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston captures every unsettling quirk.
Johnston's personal nightmare of near-fame and debilitating illness is a documentary filmmaker's dream come true. As a teenager in New Cumberland, West Virginia, the mentally disturbed artist took to filming himself and his family with a Super 8 camera and making crude audio recordings of everything, from his songs to bitter family squabbles, with a 1979 Sanyo boom box. Johnston was obsessive: When a high school friend recalls Johnston's fundamentalist parents denigrating their son's artistic achievements and calling him an "unprofitable servant," there's plenty of audio and visual footage to support the claim.
Johnston's caption-laden visual art -- reoccurring images of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Captain America, floating eyeballs, and a man whose brain has been removed -- functions as a diary, revealing Johnston's interior life in a way that's both highly visual and emotionally direct.
Johnston wasn't a successful student, but during his brief attempt at college he met a sweet young girl named Laurie Allen and tumbled head over heels. Unfortunately, she was already engaged to a mortician, a circumstance that broke Johnston's heart. If the undertaker's wife couldn't be his girlfriend, she could be his muse.
The deeply disturbed musician eventually landed in Austin, Texas, where he started handing out homemade tapes showcasing his primitive guitar playing and nakedly emotional songs. Johnston was embraced by Austin's booming underground music scene, and when MTV came to town, he suddenly found himself performing on national television. That's when everything began to unravel.
In the film's most absurd moment, Feuerzeig documents a period in the mid-1990s when Cobain was frequently photographed wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt, prompting major record labels to track Johnston down and to engage in a bidding war for an artist who was struggling with his sanity in a mental hospital. Johnston signed with Atlantic and produced a single record that was ignored by the public.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston romanticizes Johnston's music and the purity of his love for Laurie Allen but takes an unflinching look at the ravages of mental illness. It's a remarkable film that should find an audience beyond the hardcore hipsterati who are already aware of Johnston's sad story and sadder songs.