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