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The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Film Four Stars

I went into the cinema not knowing who Daniel Johnston was and having no idea what this movie, The Devil and Daniel Johnston was about. Now however, I can say I'm feeling very moved, slightly inspired, and humbled to the sacrifices people can make for others.

Indeed there were a number of times during the movie that I felt myself well up and at the end I could have had a little cry if it weren't for the two other film critics in the auditorium who were all manly and holding it together.

TheDevilandDanielJohnston_Poster.jpgDaniel Johnston is somewhat of a phenomenon. Not only is he a hugely regarded song writer, but he's a well respected artist and all in all a very tortured genius. His music still sells on dubbed cassettes from the original copies he recorded on his little cassette recorder and his ex-manager continues to hand reproduce them. He photocopies the artwork from Johnston's original writing and drawings and pastes the covers on. It's that kind of loyalty and love that this man inspires, despite an often cruel and dangerous personality.

This film traces the life of this man, from his early days of skipping chores to play piano and draw cartoons, to his MTV appearances while still working in MacDonalds, and to his manager negotiating the single most accommodating contract with a record company while the artist was in a mental institution.

This really is the story of a man with an amazing talent who through various factors in his life becomes an incredibly tortured and unstable person.

It tells some amazingly wonderful stories and at the same time some harrowing and extremely moving ones. Throughout it uses the extensive collection of film and audio tapes that Johnston and others made and kept. This is intermingled with interviews with friends and family, live performances and the occasional recreation of a location in stunning detail.

What I found particularly tough about this film is that no one seemed to do what was really best for Johnston, and instead of letting him get better they wanted to pull him out of his protected life and drag him back into the limelight, and every time Johnston came along and would come out the other end worse than when he began. He really was being exploited at the expense of his health.

The documentary is created very well. There are only a few moments where it slips. One is the first person recreation of one of his more unhinged moments which just seems very awkward and out of place, and the other is where the film seems to linger too long on one moment in his life when there's nothing really to say. However it's never too much to detract from the entire story.

This film really is down to the editing, it slowly reveals the person who you quickly begin to like, and now and again brings in a darker element, and this mirrors his life. As his school friend says, a sign of something incredibly bad happening to Johnston was exactly when something was going really well, and this is repeated in the telling of his life.

The editing also manages to keep the narrative going and the story interesting for the audience, revealing connections and turns in the story just when you need to see more. It also prepares you for when events are about to turn sour.

Something that I personally find in many documentaries that rely on audio is that the pictures tend to let the movie down and struggle to stay interesting and relevant as the story continues. Here the filmmakers have managed to concentrate on both and bring a life to the audio elements, of which there are many.

My only real issue would be with some of the footage, I assume that it just looked so bad because of its age, yet it does look like there's been an attempt at stylising it for the film. If it was the latter then I wish they have spent some time to try and clean some of it up as it did start to prove difficult to watch some of it, otherwise if it was intentional then they did overstylise it and should have left the footage as was.

Overall though the documentary is engaging and enlightening, and at the same time truly saddening. It leaves a quite sad memory as you leave the cinema, but it does drive you to think of how we treat others, how parents can touch the lives of their children, and what a tough job being a parent and friend can really be. Most of all it opens you up to the mind and the lyrics of Daniel Johnston.


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Comments

I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful commentary on my film. The only detail I would like to clarify is that there was no "stylising" whatsoever of the archival Super 8mm or vintage home video footage that was found and used in the film.

In the case of the Super 8mm film - the pattern that looks like random "snowflakes" is actually mold that is eating the emulsion of the film and is not removable or restorable, in fact it has been cleaned up to the best extent possible. Many people have commented that they actually liked this accidental effect and caused them to make the visual metaphor of what is eating at Daniel Johnston's brain. In the case of home video from the birth of this medium - all the best generation masters were used - but the true ephemeral shelf life of this stuff is very apparant.

Satan is real,

Jeff Feuerzeig
Director
The Devil and Daniel Johnston

PS For your readers who are interested in exploring the 12 best Daniel Johnston albums as well as the legendary Daniel Johnston radio broadcast that inspired the film (much scarier that Orson Welles' "War Of The Worlds") - here is a link to my blog which has these links:

http://www.sonyclassics.com/devilanddaniel/blog.html

Hi Jeff.

Many thanks for popping over and clearing that up. It's weird I never knew that film stock deteriorated in that way!

You should get some comments and a feed up on that site Jeff.

I am very excited to see this film.

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