The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

I'm ambivalent about Texas-based singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, who rose to cult status despite – or, more likely, because of – his mental illness. On the one hand, you can tell that there is a brilliant, if cracked, mind at work. On the other, his music is so shrill and unlistenable that I've often wondered how many of his hipster fans genuinely like what he does, or if they simply feel cool for being clued in to outsider artists. He's like a college music carnival act.

Jeff Feuerzeig, for his part, seems to honestly feel that Johnston is a genius on the level of Brian Wilson. His engaging documentary about Johnston's life would have you believe that every single one of the singer's supporters also loves him unironically. I don't buy that, but Johnston is an undeniably fascinating character, once an intelligent if eccentric young artist whose sanity slowly disintegrated after a series of bad drug experiences and traumatic events. Today he is an obese, hoarsely-voiced, barely functional fortysomething who is still being taken care of by his elderly parents, even as luminaries such as Beck and Tom Waits cover his songs. (Thank God for songwriting royalties: Johnston's music has even been used in a Target commercial.)

Unfortunately, Feuerzeig is too busy unspooling a by-the-numbers biography to take the time to explore not only the suspect nature of his subject's fan base, but Johnston's own egomaniacal delusions of superstardom. However, there is one telling moment in the film, where a young, pre-fame Johnston, who captured a great deal of his private life and thoughts on tape, records his mother screaming at him: "You're willing to make a laughingstock out of yourself just to get people's attention!" That one rant of hers tells the whole story of Daniel Johnston, and perhaps it's all the film really needed. That said, Feuerzeig has crafted a stylish, entertaining documentary, worth seeing even if you know little about Johnston's music.