In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

RogerEbert.com

Thumb_circle_ver2

The Circle

A high tech thriller with plenty of tech and not enough thrills.

Thumb_how_to_be_a_latin_lover_ver4

How to Be a Latin Lover

Eugenio Derbez’s attempt to seduce U.S. audiences with a cheesy bilingual spoof of an ethnic stereotype long past its expiration date.

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb_xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives

Reviews

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston Movie Review
  |  

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" opens with Johnston being introduced at a folk club in Austin, Texas, as "the greatest singer-songwriter alive today." This sort of statement is either true, or really needs to be heard by the person being described. Daniel Johnston needs all the support he can find. He is a singer-songwriter and an artist whose underground tapes and gallery shows sell out, and he is also a manic-depressive with other mental problems that have had him in and out of hospitals for years.

Advertisement

This documentary charts his life's journey in through an apparently inexhaustible archive of video and audio tapes. Jeff Feuerzeig, who won the best director award at Sundance 2005 for this film, has started with a subject who has filmed himself and been filmed by others for more than 20 years. That allows us to see Daniel Johnston as a bright young kid who "lost all his confidence" in junior high school, who has had a romantic obsession with a classmate all of his life, who was briefly a star on MTV, whose songs have been covered by Beck and Pearl Jam, who Kurt Cobain called the "greatest living songwriter," whose friends included members of Sonic Youth and Half Japanese, and who still lives at home with his parents, who worry about what will happen to him when they are gone. His tapes are sold on the Web by an ex-manager, still a fan of his music, who he fired and attacked with a pipe.

Despite the loyalty it inspires, Daniel Johnston's music does not seem to deserve quite the level of praise he has received. He made a crucial early decision to move away from the piano, which he could play, to the guitar, which he has not mastered. When the Austin Chronicle named him Austin's "Folk Artist of the Year," its editor recalls, that created some unhappiness "in a town where a lot of people can play the guitar."

Johnston's life has often been highly medicated, and when he goes off meds for a week or two before a concert, he sometimes gets into trouble. After a happy trip to New York, he was returning home when he got off the bus in West Virginia and was involved in an incident that led to an elderly lady breaking her ankles jumping out a window. During a trip in his dad's private airplane, he caused a crash that could have killed them both.

His artwork first got publicity when Cobain wore one of his T-shirts for weeks on end (whether it was always the same shirt the movie neglects to say), and his drawings of devils, crucifixes and eyeballs, especially eyeballs, have become famous in some circles.

Watching the movie, I was reminded of the documentary "Crumb" and its portrait of R. Crumb's brother Charles, who almost never left his bedroom in his mother's home, and whose drawings and notebooks, Robert Crumb says, inspired him. There is a line that sometimes runs between genius and madness, sometimes encircles them.

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" shows us a life of accomplishment and achievement, ringed around with sadness, dampened by drugs both prescribed and not (bad acid trips didn't help), and supported by parents who the film characterizes as "fundamentalist," as if that led to Daniel's troubles. It looks to me more as if Johnston's parents are the luckiest thing that has ever happened to him, as they care for him on his good days and his impossible ones.

Advertisement

Popular Blog Posts

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

“American Gods” Wants to be Your New TV Religion

A review of Starz's "American Gods," a show like nothing you have ever seen before.

Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish" Reigns on Criterion Blu-ray

One of the most important and dazzlingly original works by Coppola comes to Criterion Blu-ray.

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus