Dubious Documentaries #8

Devil and DJ

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig—2006—110 minutes

Early on in this film, when Daniel Johnston is introduced at a 2001 gig as “the best singer-songwriter alive today”, those for whom this praiseful documentary was made will nod their heads while neutral observers may well start scratching theirs. His braying voice and incongruous philosophizing is guaranteed not to be to everyone’s fancy, but still director Jeff Feuerzeig lets stand numerous favorable comparisons that have Johnston right up there with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and even the greatest classical composers.

Johnston is a compulsive and reasonably talented musician, illustrator and audio diarist who is also a deeply troubled man with significant mental health issues that went largely unaddressed while growing up in a religiously conservative household in West Virginia. Soon after he moved to Texas, Johnston was adopted by Austin scenesters and his homemade cassettes became all the rage. Before long he shouldered his way into an MTV special and was befriended and/or championed by members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers among others. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” may prove an uncomfortable experience for those not already converted. Johnston’s schizophrenia has led to violent and extremely reckless behavior that have endangered himself as well as friends and families. While his guileless music and lyrics sometimes hit peaks of uncommon grace, there is a nagging notion that people wouldn’t be half so enamored if it weren’t for his mental illness, which for years was dealt with willy-nilly. Feuerzeig doesn’t go anywhere near that issue, leaving his film looking like a vanity tribute to counter-intuitive hipsterdom.

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