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Revisit: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Revisit: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

A convincing case for how the transcendence of Johnston’s drawings, songwriting and lo-fi performances stemmed from the rawness with which he expressed himself in spite of, and not due to, his demons.

When considering art, we tend to conflate mental illness and genius. Vincent van Gogh’s self-severed ear looms as largely in the Dutch post-impressionist’s lore as does The Starry Night. The outsider art of Daniel Johnston, rendered both in visual and musical media, especially lends itself to linking his raw artistic talent with the cognitive demons he battled. Johnston himself tied his mental health to his creative output, whether by compulsively drawing a hero with a sawed-open skull boxing a multi-eyed monster, by promoting his cassettes through mentioning his nervous breakdown or by penning songs like “I Have Lost My Mind,” which plays as a centerpiece in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Though Johnston didn’t similarly die an unappreciated pauper—instead passing away earlier this month just two years removed from a nationwide farewell tour—the comparison to the famously mad genius van Gogh crops up several times in the documentary. The Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black is quick to make the comparison, though like many of the talking heads in the film, he’s prone to hyperbole, even claiming that being given one of Johnston’s early tapes was comparable to acquiring music from a pre-fame Bob Dylan.

In fact, one of the striking aspects of the interviews in this film is how often the conversation reverts to self-promotion, as Austin musician Kathy McCarty, a former romantic interest of Johnston’s, is quick to cite her own creative endeavors and Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes even insists on flying his own freak flag by fielding the interview while in the midst of a dental procedure. This adds an extra layer of tragedy to Johnston’s situation, as even those presumably close to him seemed to have a difficult time understanding him. This reality is most starkly illustrated in his elderly parents’ interviews, as stories of his childhood clashes with his religious, fussy mother, in particular, relay efforts made to blunt his creative excesses in the name of dogmatic conformity (with evidence of ugly family arguments often caught on Johnston’s ever-running tape).

The great irony, then, in Johnston’s life story is that, after years of working to break free from the restraints of an art-stifling, conservative West Virginia upbringing—even going so far as to drive off on a moped and join a carnival, which eventually landed him in Austin—his illness would manifest in such a way that biblical figures would obsessively play a central role in his delusions. As the film’s title suggests, Johnston became fixated on the devil and demonic possession. Grainy Super 8 footage of his unhinged religious rants, both on stage and off it, provide the film’s most vivid evidence of Johnston’s severely compromised mental state.

But the darkness that shrouds Johnston’s later adult life is nevertheless pierced by the film’s ample focus on his exuberantly creative youth. Jeff Feuerzeig may artfully direct the documentary—one that’s replete with stylistic flourishes including animations of Johnston’s drawings set to his songs—but Johnston often acts as his own documentarian, given that the film’s most poignant moments were captured via his own home video and (especially) audio recordings. We are presented with his endearing quirks: his pride in his McDonald’s employment; his creative decision to turn from playing the piano well to the guitar poorly; his naïve romantic feelings toward a high-school crush and lifelong muse. We are also given access to unhinged diatribes and frightening detachments from reality. Although the most harrowing moments—such as his father crash-landing an airplane after Johnston tosses the keys out the window or a deranged Johnston frightening an elderly woman to the point she leaped from her second-story apartment—remain dramatically and movingly recounted through interviews.

Though it delves deeply into how his experiences with bipolar disorder informed his songwriting, The Devil and Daniel Johnston excels at drawing a distinction between his illness and his melodic genius. Johnston’s passion and talent were hindered, not enhanced, by his mental condition, even as popular opinion often echoes Black’s clichéd assertion that “all great artists are crazy.” The film, instead, makes a convincing case for how the transcendence of Johnston’s drawings, songwriting and lo-fi performances stemmed from the rawness with which he expressed himself in spite of, and not due to, his demons.

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