The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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I’m not a Daniel Johnston fan. I’ve heard of him for years and eventually bought the discovered/covered CD. During the few listens i’ve given to it, I couldn’t “hear the Beatles” which is what’s supposed to happen once you give Daniel’s tuneless but charmingly child-like voice and a chance. Then again, i can’t hear the “obvious” pixies influence in nirvana – this famed quiet/loud dynamic that the pixies supposedly constantly used. I don’t mind admitting that i’m unhealthily obsessed with the pixies and I can categorically state that this is NOT some pixies m.o. just because Kurt Cobain heard “tame” doesn’t mean that the pixies were the rock upon which nirvana built their song structures. I will return to this rant at a later date.

Back to mad Daniel. You’ve got to approach a documentary about an artist with a mental illness with some trepidation. Am I just being voyeuristic? How hagiographic is it going to be? Do we get to see a real live mad person doing mad stuff? well – probably, it’s not and sometimes.

The documentary format used is straightforward. It tells the story of Daniel Johnston from birth to now. Daniel himself is not directly interviewed for the film but is hovering in the background for significant parts. The story of his descent into mental illness is grippingly relayed through interviews with those who know him best and the really great thing is that the makers have no intention of telling us that mad=good/cool. Instead what comes across is the constant heartbreak that Daniel’s illness creates for those close to him. Daniel’s elderly parents provide a constant reminder of what it is like to be close to someone like Daniel – the misery, the endless worry about what will happen to him, the devastation at the depths of daniel’s delusions – his father (a pilot) once had to crash his plane into a wood after Daniel killed the engine mid-flight so as to kill the demon flying the plane.

Daniel’s illness accompanied him on the standard sex,drugs and rock’n’roll voyage and also caused him to constantly sabotage his opportunities. Those close to him only wanted to see him well enough and happy enough to create. Those who supposedly saw “genius” in him, the new york avant garde set, well…footage from a Daniel gig in the knitting factory shows a bunch of these black-clad, bearded, vegan wankers nodding sagely as a ridiculously delusional Johnston constantly cries and exhorts them to reject the demons that are so obviously everywhere. These are the sort of people who would have applauded and chin-stroked the emotionally devastating yet powerful exhortation to create that van gogh’s severed ear provided rather than calling a doctor and getting the poor bastard something to mop up the vivid scarlet of his blood.

Forget music, forget critical acclaim, forget careers in the arts, forget the patronage of thurston moore – the devil and daniel johnston is the story of a human being who is broken. It is a strange story and one that i don’t find redemptive even at the end where a somewhat better daniel performs his songs to a large appreciative audience. Not being a fan (yet) I’m just not sure what they’re applauding. But this beautifully non-judgemental film lets you make up your own mind about people’s motivations. What stands clear is the fact that life is complex, random, and sad but that’s what makes it so damn interesting. As long as you’re off your fucking head.

Written by John Barron

9 Responses to “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”


  1. 1 nichole December 16, 2006 at 2:19 am

    did you notice the blatant rip-off by the pixie’s….and the devil six and the devil is six and the devil is six and GOD IS SEVEN AN GOD IS SEVEN AND GOD IS SEVEN frank black lifted that whole song, not to mention his style of singing from daniel jonston.

  2. 2 john barron December 29, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    hi nichole

    like i said, i’m not a daniel johnston fan but i loved the film. regarding the pixies ripping him off – isn’t it said that talent borrows and genius steals?

  3. 3 Derik January 28, 2007 at 3:29 am

    Tuneless? Only lately. Danny has become a shadow of his former self. Melodically his newer songs seem to the barest jottings compared to his earlier stuff. Listen to the first three Daniel albums if you want to know what it’s all about. You’ll hear a brilliant songwriter, not a “mad” artist.

    For instance in the song “I Save cigarette butts for a poor girl” he moves from absurd non sequitor to a Finnegan’s Wake reference to slamming home the earlier non sequitor with devastating comic timing at the very end. I could go on, but in the early albums there are literally too many examples to count. The lyrics are MUCH too controlled to be simply the product of madness. Not if you think madness=randomness, or a loss of the ability to reveal something about human nature.

    As has so often happened with other artists, “bi-polar chic” has come to overshadow and define Daniel Johnston’s music. This means he is dismissed by so-called critics who rightly oppose this kind of sensationalism, but are unable to listen to the music without being tainted by it. Very sad, but to those who are above snap judgements there is a wealth of music to discover.

  4. 4 Sean K December 14, 2008 at 12:15 am

    Terrible article. Why have a guy who clearly ‘doesn’t get it’ review the movie. It’s like a heavy metal fan reviewing a Captain Beefheart retrospective. It’s only going to annoy the people who do ‘get it’.

  5. 5 Sean K December 14, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    Also, it seems like the guy didn’t even really pay close attention to the movie. For example he says Daniel took control of the plane and sent it into a downward spiral because he was trying to “kill the demon flying the plane”. I distinctly remember in the film his father saying that is NOT the reason he did what he did, but explained in clear and unambiguous detail that he thought he was Casper the ghost at the time, and that he was actually ‘having fun’. They even showed the cover of the Casper comic he was reading at the time. Giving an uninformed review is one thing, but getting entire parts of the movie (and important ones, at that) is lousy journalism and is unforgivable.

  6. 6 Ray W November 9, 2009 at 9:23 am

    This is the first honest review I have read about Daniel. He is a guy with challenges who makes music. Go to any beach or Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley and you’ll find many of the same. Genius?

  7. 7 Tim McKay August 21, 2012 at 3:02 am

    I agree with your portrayal of the audience…so obviously looking to be “getting” something most do not.

    Especially the scene where he’s weeping uncontrollably while singing to a crowd…but really it had become a top-of-mind manic rant, not a song. The morbid need to continue filming this obvious public breakdown is nothing short of appalling, especially considering it was being filmed by friends and fans.

  8. 8 d. s. September 16, 2012 at 1:16 am

    this guy is a valid human being. thats what i get from this. he is ta lented but was stricken by madness. this film shows you the human behind the sickness. most people who are sick like him are shut away and discarded. disposable. lucky for him that he lucked out alittle. maybe those vegans and hipsters helped daniel so that this film could be made. anyone who sees this can start being more humane to his fellows now. and the milk toast weaklings of the world can learn to live with messy if you ask me. thats what life is. and its dangerous too. go back to sleep.

  9. 9 hamai March 25, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    The virtue of this movie is giving Daniel a chance to be heard, where otherwise people wouldn’t even give him a chance. Mental illness is such a taboo we tend to isolate people like they have a contagious illness. The movie creates empathy and sets the base for a fair audition. Personally I became a fan of his music, already got a Yip Jump Translator 3000 implanted in my ears so I can understand mostly everything he sings. It doesn’t help Don Quixote was my favorite book before knowing his music. I think Daniel provides a reference point in terms of honesty and meaning. It’s amazing how fake and pretending people can be with music when you compare to this guy stuff.


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