Thursday, September 27, 2007
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston is irrational, irresponsible and at times violent due to his manic depressive condition. In the course of his life he seriously threatened the lives of three people; his former manager, an elderly woman and his own father. Footage of Johnston in this film contains scenes where he thinks he is a ghost of himself, casually describing demons as real, breaking down in the middle of an identity crisis and preaching to an audience of NYC noise hipsters about the dangers of Satan.
But when Johnston is on stage with a guitar in hand, all one can see and feel is bliss. The fragility of Johnston's off key singing voice is so enduring you can't believe that it is coming form an over-weight chain smoker wearing sweatpants. The lyrics sound as if they could have been from an era far gone; Leadbelly and early Bob Dylan comes to mind. And somehow Johnston can make Casper the Friendly Ghost seem ACTUALLY haunting with his words.
Here in lies the paradox of Johnston's life. Within him is both a saint and the devil. Through the movie he is never interviewed in the present moment, but there really isn't any need for this sense he recorded himself talking through most of his adult life. We can hear primary sources of documentation from him. Everyone else, his parents and siblings, his closest friends, seem to be much closer to the audience. Not only are they being interviewed in the present day, but they're really the only ones you can relate to since Johnston's personality is so unique. It doesn't take long to realize that they are the heroes of the story.
I was particularly impressed with Johnston's parents. Unlike Johnston's many managers or even a few of his closer musical friends, Johnston's parents are only concerned with Johnston's happiness. Their tolerance and acceptance of Johnston is unbelievable.
So when I came to the end of "The Devil and Daniel Johnston", I really wasn't sure what to think. On the one hand, Johnston has inspired an era of singer/songwriters, from Kurt Cobain to Conor Oberst, while still remaining in a league and category of his own. His music will be remembered dozens of years from now the same way we remember Leadbelly.
But on the other hand, how much can one contribute this to Daniel Johnston himself? If it wasn't for the love of his parents and patrons who broke their backs in order for him to simply function, would Johnston have burned out years ago? There are so many close calls in his life. Johnston only survives because there are people who care and can bail him out.
The movie's moral is that in order for an artist to succeed, he needs to be able to function. Johnston can do everything else but function, so a fair amount of his work can be attributed to the people who find him dear.