The Devil and Daniel Johnston


1h 49m 2005

Brief Synopsis

Portrait of a manic-depressive genius singer, songwriter and artist, Daniel Johnston. As a reclusive teenager, Johnston began showing signs of unusual artistic ability. He religiously recorded his thoughts and stories onto cassette tapes, directed intuitive Super-8 films starring his siblings, and c

Film Details

Also Known As
Devil and Daniel Johnston
MPAA Rating
Genre
Documentary
Music
Release Date
2005
Production Company
Berkeley Sound Artists; Big Red Pixel; Complex Corporation; Modern VideoFilm; Post Logic Studios; The Rights Workshop; The Saul Zaentz Film Center; This Is That
Distribution Company
Sony Pictures Classics; Avalon; Metro Tartan Distributors; Sony Pictures Classics; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; Sony Pictures Releasing International; Village Roadshow Limited

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 49m

Synopsis

Portrait of a manic-depressive genius singer, songwriter and artist, Daniel Johnston. As a reclusive teenager, Johnston began showing signs of unusual artistic ability. He religiously recorded his thoughts and stories onto cassette tapes, directed intuitive Super-8 films starring his siblings, and created expressive comic book-style drawings in the basement of his family's home. In the eyes of his fundamentalist Christian family, however, he simply wasn't contributing to society in a useful or productive way. After running off and joining a carnival, Johnston landed in Austin, Texas, broke and alone. It was there he began to hone his musical career, recording folk songs on a series of homemade, lo-fi cassettes, which Daniel handed out free to fans, friends and journalists in the early '80s. Ultimately, he managed to secure a brief spotlight on MTV with the help of a timely break. Just as he was beginning to make a local name for himself, however, Johnston's inner demons began to surface. His portrait serves as clear depiction of one artist's balancing act between brilliance and madness--a life marked by wild fluctuations, numerous downward spirals, and periodic respites.

Crew

Nicole Acacio

Production Coordinator

Gabriela Aguilar

Production Assistant

Gabriela Aguilar

Grip

Gabriela Aguilar

Electrician

Karl Alexander

Electrician

Karl Alexander

Grip

Ethan Andrus

Sound Recordist

Jessica Attel

Grip

Jessica Attel

Electrician

Leora Backer

Production Assistant

Joseph Bailey

2-D Artist

Kent Baker

Grip

Kent Baker

Electrician

Henry Ball

Software Engineer

Brian M Beattie

Song Performer

Brian M Beattie

Song

Yves Beauvais

Photography

Wayne Bell

Sound Recordist

Felix Bernard

Song

Pat Blashill

Photography

Susan H. Bodine

Legal Services

Sonic Boom

Song Performer

Mateo Bourdieu

Production Assistant

Jutta Brandt

Photography

Michael Burke

Production Assistant

J Calvin Bushey

Song

John Cates

Production Assistant

Harry Clark

Camera

Harry Clark

Photography

Kurt Cobain

Song

Candace Cole

Graphic Designer

Katy Church Of Christ Congregation

Song Performer

Jasper Daley

Photography

John Dankworth

Song

John Dankworth

Song Performer

Monica Dee

Photography

Jason Dennis

Production Assistant

Kevin Dewitt

Production Assistant

David Donaldson

Visual Effects

Peter Donavan

Camera

Steve Double

Photography

Casey Dunn

Grip

Casey Dunn

Electrician

Rodney Elliot

Production Assistant

Sam Elwitt

Music Producer

Mátyás Erdély

Photography

David Fair

Photography

Jad Fair

Song

Jad Fair

Song Performer

Rob Featherstone

Photography

Jeff Feuerzeig

Editor

Jeff Feuerzeig

Photography

Robert Finley Iii

Electrician

Robert Finley Iii

Grip

Nick Apollo Forte

Song Performer

Nick Apollo Forte

Song

Tarn Fox

Compositing Supervisor

Nathaniel Fregoso

Assistant Editor

Ed Fuller

Editor

Niles J Fuller

Photography

Tim Gallegos

Visual Effects

Kiara Geller

Art Department

Timothy Georgarakis

Graphic Designer

Chris Geraghty

Production Coordinator

Gregg Gibbs

Art Department

Tom Gimbel

Photography

Craig Grossmueller

Camera

Franz Gruber

Song

Steve Hahn

Production Assistant

Anne Hall

Assistant Editor

Kirk Hammett

Song

Sean Harper

Production Assistant

James Hetfield

Song

Dennis Hocking

Production Assistant

Adam Hollander

Production Assistant

Ted Hope

Executive Producer

Tyler Hubby

Editor

Edison Jackson

Electrician

Edison Jackson

Grip

Matthew W Johnson

Visual Effects

Daniel Johnston

Song

Daniel Johnston

Music Arranger

Daniel Johnston

Music

Daniel Johnston

Song Performer

Adam Joseph

Sound Recordist

John G Kirby

3-D Artist

Ben Kobos

Production Assistant

Mark Krumper

Production Coordinator

C B Woody Lang

Electrician

C B Woody Lang

Grip

Michael Lavine

Photography

David Layton

Camera

James Lebrecht

Sound Designer

James Lebrecht

Sound Re-Recording Mixer

Robert H Lewallen

Grip

Robert H Lewallen

Electrician

Jonah Loop

Visual Effects Producer

Michael Macioce

Photography

Rick Magee

Photography

Nelson Mah

Film Lab

Buz Maloy

Grip

Buz Maloy

Electrician

Tamara Marcarian

Production Assistant

Scott Marcus

Song Performer

Scott Marcus

Song

Johnny Marks

Song

Tony Mazzucchi

Production Assistant

Brett Mccarthy

Assistant Editor

Kathleen Anne Mccarty

Song Performer

Kathleen Anne Mccarty

Song

Kathy Mccarty

Song

J Mcconnico

Photography

Charles Mcdonald

Titles

Jill Mcgraw

Art Department

Eric Meyerson

Graphic Designer

Peter Michelena

Photography

Donovan Micoch

Production Assistant

Mark Miller

Production Coordinator

Mark Miller

Photography

Donovan Mlcoch

Camera

Joe Monroe

Software Engineer

Dan Olmsted

Sound Re-Recording Mixer

Lawrence Onoda

Production Assistant

Debbie Pastor

Photography

Marcos V Perez

Production Assistant

Matt Petrosky

Camera

Matthew A Petrosky

Camera

Britta Phillips

Song Performer

Fortunato Procopio

Director Of Photography

Chris Rogers

Art Department

Hanna Rogers

Graphic Designer

George S Rosenthal

Production Assistant

Henry S Rosenthal

Producer

Robert Rossello

Visual Effects Supervisor

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini

Song

Susanne Sasic

Photography

Adam Schwartz

Camera

Tom Shinn

Grip

Tom Shinn

Electrician

Molli Simon

Production Coordinator

Richard Smith

Song

Daniel Sperry

Consultant

J H Stanley

Song

Allie Sultan

Assistant Sound Editor

Jeff Tartakov

Photography

Patti Tauscher

Supervising Sound Editor

The Three Suns

Song Performer

Morganna Thomas

Production Assistant

Will Thompson

Song

David Thornberry

Photography

Dennis Towns

Sound Recordist

Moe Tucker

Song Performer

Michael Underwood

Colorist

Wilson M Waggoner

Electrician

Wilson M Waggoner

Grip

Dean Wareham

Song Performer

Isaac Watts

Song

Walter Werzowa

Music Scoring Mixer

Walter Werzowa

Song Performer

Walter Werzowa

Music Arranger

Walter Werzowa

Song

John A Witmer

Electrician

John A Witmer

Grip

Charles Yang

Production Assistant

Film Details

Also Known As
Devil and Daniel Johnston
MPAA Rating
Genre
Documentary
Music
Release Date
2005
Production Company
Berkeley Sound Artists; Big Red Pixel; Complex Corporation; Modern VideoFilm; Post Logic Studios; The Rights Workshop; The Saul Zaentz Film Center; This Is That
Distribution Company
Sony Pictures Classics; Avalon; Metro Tartan Distributors; Sony Pictures Classics; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; Sony Pictures Releasing International; Village Roadshow Limited

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 49m

Articles

Devil and Daniel Johnston, The - THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON - Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 Doc on the Eccentric Singer/Songwriter


So many documentaries are on the market today that any effort seeking a wide audience must have a highly interesting subject and a wealth of unique visuals. The Devil and Daniel Johnston has both in the unusual singer-songwriter-artist Daniel Johnston. A manic-depressive obsessed with battling Satan, Daniel has been fighting institutionalization most of his adult life. A star of early MTV and a cult figure lionized by superstar rockers, he's considered a genius as a songwriter and his art is displayed at galleries and presentations worldwide. Even better for director Jeff Feuerzeig, Daniel documented his entire life on innumerable audiocassettes, home movies and videotapes. He's a weird character with a compelling story: An artistic visionary that on a good day is only marginally in control of his own mind.

Synopsis: Home videos, self-made audio diaries and interview testimony chart the life of Daniel Johnston, who grew up in a God-fearing West Virginia family. Different from the rest of his brothers and sisters, Daniel concentrates on strange drawings, offbeat music and home movie projects. His parents lobby to steer him on a more conventional path, but Daniel goes his own strange way. He doesn't fit in at college and is sent to live with relatives in another state. There he meets Laurie, a girl he falls madly in love with. She marries another fellow and Daniel runs away with a carnival, ending up living with a sister in Texas. He holds down a job at McDonald's although he has difficulty doing any task but clearing tables. Daniel gives away cassettes of his songs, which impress local music critics and win him a place with a band. Although he can barely play a guitar and his singing sometimes suggests a parody of Andy Kaufman, Daniel's music gains a popular following that translates to notoriety on the new MTV network. A potential new star is born, but just as Daniel nears real success he succumbs to his mental illness and exhibits dangerous and unpredictable behavior. He spends the next few years in and out of institutions while his parents and music managers try to help him find peace in his music. His unusual drawings become popular with mainstream rock performers but he proves unable to take responsibility for himself. Managed by his aging parents, Daniel gives concerts and attends showings of his artwork.

Here's a film to make every teenaged art / music / film wannabe reassess their goals and talents. This case of repressed upbringing is not a theory, as we can see and hear all of the evidence: Young Daniel Johnston seemingly recorded everything in his life in the conviction that he would someday be famous. Daniel starts as a spirited oddball, a fun-loving kid brimming with creativity. We're shown his precocious home movies and see how he made a name for himself as the school 'art kid', drawing elaborate cartoons and gags for his classmates and using his movie camera to express his adoration for Laurie, a cute college girl. Incapable of expressing his intense juvenile crush in words, Daniel redirects his pain and longing into songs and poems. His eccentricity begins to show clear signs of a personality disorder. He has trouble assuming the simplest responsibilities and is given to impulsive and erratic behavior. Later in Texas, a girl that Daniel sings with must treat him like a child to disabuse him of the notion that they're engaged.

Daniel's audiotapes document Mrs. Johnston's screaming harangues, proving that they really happened. Daniel ignores his parents' incessant Old Testament sermons, an oppressive weight that eventually boomerangs into religious mania. When Daniel's behavior becomes paranoid, obscure Bible rants dominate his performances. Anybody attempting to help or guide him is identified as an agent of Satan. Daniel frightens an old woman so badly that she leaps from a second floor window. He's arrested and institutionalized for months. Free again, Daniel goes to New York but almost immediately succumbs to paranoid fantasies. Fearing that he'll be sent back home, he runs away from his friends and walks to New Jersey.

The unpredictable Daniel goes berserk in his father's light plane, forcing a crash landing His parents stick by him, eventually becoming his caretakers. Daniel fires his faithful and supportive manager, and any vestige of a conventional music career soon disappears.

With so much audio-visual documentation available, director Feuerzeig's documentary plays like a straight narrative. The beautifully shot new material visits old locations as we hear Daniel's preserved voice or that of his mother or an old friend describing past events. Daniel's voice changes over the years as he evolves from a peppy kid to an over-weight and unkempt 45 year-old. We chart his artwork from high school onward. They start as doodles around a theme -- eyeballs, a man with his brain missing -- and often involve his favorite heroes Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Daniel's style has barely changed in twenty-five years but like his music, the pictures take on a kind of primitive purity. Collectors find his personality fascinating. Some of Daniel's strange songs have a strong poetic appeal, especially the earlier ones: Unbound emotions and raw insights. On the other hand, the hip 'glamour' of mental illness appears to be what attracted fans like the late Curt Cobain to Daniel's music.

Feuerzeig's portrait of Daniel Johnston ends on a strange note. Daniel's now-elderly parents have worked out a system that keeps his extremes in check, but they have to do everything for him. They know they won't be around all that much longer. Who will provide the customized support Daniel needs so badly?

Sony's DVD of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fine encoding of this HD docu. The new interviews and footage look splendid and the 'background' Super-8 and home video material is carefully transferred, even though much of the old film is covered with tiny algae growth. The footage of Laurie, the lifelong girl of Daniel's dreams, is particularly good.

The disc extras give The Devil and Daniel Johnston a second, even more satisfying ending. One unused piece of video shows Daniel on an invitational trip to South Africa, where he plays King Kong in a short film. But the stunner is documentation from the film's premiere. The producers bring the real "Laurie" to see the show and Daniel meets her for the first time in 25 years. She greets him with warmth and affection, and handles his predictable reaction with gentle tolerance: "I never thought I'd see you again. Will you marry me?" It's very touching. Although Daniel is in a gentle stage of adjustment -- some people might describe it as a state of grace -- we understand completely that he's still definitely off-kilter.

Other extra material includes a director and producer commentary, sidebar galleries of Daniel Johnston movies and personal audio recordings, and footage from the Sundance World Premiere.

For more information about The Devil and Daniel Johnston, visit Sony Pictures. To order The Devil and Daniel Johnston, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson
Devil And Daniel Johnston, The - The Devil And Daniel Johnston - Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 Doc On The Eccentric Singer/songwriter

Devil and Daniel Johnston, The - THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON - Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 Doc on the Eccentric Singer/Songwriter

So many documentaries are on the market today that any effort seeking a wide audience must have a highly interesting subject and a wealth of unique visuals. The Devil and Daniel Johnston has both in the unusual singer-songwriter-artist Daniel Johnston. A manic-depressive obsessed with battling Satan, Daniel has been fighting institutionalization most of his adult life. A star of early MTV and a cult figure lionized by superstar rockers, he's considered a genius as a songwriter and his art is displayed at galleries and presentations worldwide. Even better for director Jeff Feuerzeig, Daniel documented his entire life on innumerable audiocassettes, home movies and videotapes. He's a weird character with a compelling story: An artistic visionary that on a good day is only marginally in control of his own mind. Synopsis: Home videos, self-made audio diaries and interview testimony chart the life of Daniel Johnston, who grew up in a God-fearing West Virginia family. Different from the rest of his brothers and sisters, Daniel concentrates on strange drawings, offbeat music and home movie projects. His parents lobby to steer him on a more conventional path, but Daniel goes his own strange way. He doesn't fit in at college and is sent to live with relatives in another state. There he meets Laurie, a girl he falls madly in love with. She marries another fellow and Daniel runs away with a carnival, ending up living with a sister in Texas. He holds down a job at McDonald's although he has difficulty doing any task but clearing tables. Daniel gives away cassettes of his songs, which impress local music critics and win him a place with a band. Although he can barely play a guitar and his singing sometimes suggests a parody of Andy Kaufman, Daniel's music gains a popular following that translates to notoriety on the new MTV network. A potential new star is born, but just as Daniel nears real success he succumbs to his mental illness and exhibits dangerous and unpredictable behavior. He spends the next few years in and out of institutions while his parents and music managers try to help him find peace in his music. His unusual drawings become popular with mainstream rock performers but he proves unable to take responsibility for himself. Managed by his aging parents, Daniel gives concerts and attends showings of his artwork. Here's a film to make every teenaged art / music / film wannabe reassess their goals and talents. This case of repressed upbringing is not a theory, as we can see and hear all of the evidence: Young Daniel Johnston seemingly recorded everything in his life in the conviction that he would someday be famous. Daniel starts as a spirited oddball, a fun-loving kid brimming with creativity. We're shown his precocious home movies and see how he made a name for himself as the school 'art kid', drawing elaborate cartoons and gags for his classmates and using his movie camera to express his adoration for Laurie, a cute college girl. Incapable of expressing his intense juvenile crush in words, Daniel redirects his pain and longing into songs and poems. His eccentricity begins to show clear signs of a personality disorder. He has trouble assuming the simplest responsibilities and is given to impulsive and erratic behavior. Later in Texas, a girl that Daniel sings with must treat him like a child to disabuse him of the notion that they're engaged. Daniel's audiotapes document Mrs. Johnston's screaming harangues, proving that they really happened. Daniel ignores his parents' incessant Old Testament sermons, an oppressive weight that eventually boomerangs into religious mania. When Daniel's behavior becomes paranoid, obscure Bible rants dominate his performances. Anybody attempting to help or guide him is identified as an agent of Satan. Daniel frightens an old woman so badly that she leaps from a second floor window. He's arrested and institutionalized for months. Free again, Daniel goes to New York but almost immediately succumbs to paranoid fantasies. Fearing that he'll be sent back home, he runs away from his friends and walks to New Jersey. The unpredictable Daniel goes berserk in his father's light plane, forcing a crash landing His parents stick by him, eventually becoming his caretakers. Daniel fires his faithful and supportive manager, and any vestige of a conventional music career soon disappears. With so much audio-visual documentation available, director Feuerzeig's documentary plays like a straight narrative. The beautifully shot new material visits old locations as we hear Daniel's preserved voice or that of his mother or an old friend describing past events. Daniel's voice changes over the years as he evolves from a peppy kid to an over-weight and unkempt 45 year-old. We chart his artwork from high school onward. They start as doodles around a theme -- eyeballs, a man with his brain missing -- and often involve his favorite heroes Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Daniel's style has barely changed in twenty-five years but like his music, the pictures take on a kind of primitive purity. Collectors find his personality fascinating. Some of Daniel's strange songs have a strong poetic appeal, especially the earlier ones: Unbound emotions and raw insights. On the other hand, the hip 'glamour' of mental illness appears to be what attracted fans like the late Curt Cobain to Daniel's music. Feuerzeig's portrait of Daniel Johnston ends on a strange note. Daniel's now-elderly parents have worked out a system that keeps his extremes in check, but they have to do everything for him. They know they won't be around all that much longer. Who will provide the customized support Daniel needs so badly? Sony's DVD of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fine encoding of this HD docu. The new interviews and footage look splendid and the 'background' Super-8 and home video material is carefully transferred, even though much of the old film is covered with tiny algae growth. The footage of Laurie, the lifelong girl of Daniel's dreams, is particularly good. The disc extras give The Devil and Daniel Johnston a second, even more satisfying ending. One unused piece of video shows Daniel on an invitational trip to South Africa, where he plays King Kong in a short film. But the stunner is documentation from the film's premiere. The producers bring the real "Laurie" to see the show and Daniel meets her for the first time in 25 years. She greets him with warmth and affection, and handles his predictable reaction with gentle tolerance: "I never thought I'd see you again. Will you marry me?" It's very touching. Although Daniel is in a gentle stage of adjustment -- some people might describe it as a state of grace -- we understand completely that he's still definitely off-kilter. Other extra material includes a director and producer commentary, sidebar galleries of Daniel Johnston movies and personal audio recordings, and footage from the Sundance World Premiere. For more information about The Devil and Daniel Johnston, visit Sony Pictures. To order The Devil and Daniel Johnston, go to TCM Shopping. by Glenn Erickson

Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston - Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig, director of "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Interview by Marty Mapes

Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston - Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig, director of "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Interview by Marty Mapes

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Winner of Best Director at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Released in United States Spring March 31, 2006

Released in United States on Video September 19, 2006

Released in United States 2005

Released in United States January 2005

Released in United States February 2005

Released in United States March 2005

Shown at New Directors/New Films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 23-April 3, 2005.

Shown at Berlin International Film Festival February 10-20, 2005.

Shown at South by Southwest Film Festival March 11-19, 2005.

Released in United States Spring March 31, 2006

Released in United States on Video September 19, 2006

Released in United States 2005 (Shown at New Directors/New Films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 23-April 3, 2005.)

Released in United States January 2005 (Shown at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition) January 20-30, 2005.)

Released in United States February 2005 (Shown at Berlin International Film Festival February 10-20, 2005.)

Released in United States March 2005 (Shown at South by Southwest Film Festival March 11-19, 2005.)