The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a documentary released in 2005 about the life and times of musician and artist Daniel Johnston. It follows his success and then his spiral down into the clutches of manic depression; and other potential mental illnesses.
Who is Daniel Johnston? After watching this movie you will know all about him. The subject is covered quite thoroughly and all and all it is entertaining. However, the man and his music is shown through the scope that he is a musical genius of some sort, but there’s a reason most of you reading this do not know who he is: his music sounds like the simple childlike rhyme schemes of a mentally ill person; mere opinion.
I rented this movie for a second viewing after hearing one of Daniel Johnston’s songs in an Axe shampoo commercial. It is not the first time that his work has gone mainstream, but I think his underground following is more based on his legend than a reality of legions fully connecting with and enjoying the tunes. If he were to walk out on a stage today, without his back story and previous accolades, and sing the way he does: he would be a novelty act. He would a bad American Idol audition. He would be a William Hung type of artist. As for his art in the realms of drawing and paintings, there is more talent there then what I have, but for the most part they seem like teenage comic book doodles. I am not trying to critique such things though, to each their own, something speaks to you it speaks to you, and the man obviously has a fan base. Daniel Johnston is portrayed as going quite mad, but perhaps there is some madness in the people who claim to find his music to be brilliant.
Even though it showcases a lot of Daniel Johnston’s music, perhaps the movie does not go deep enough into his catalog of tracks to wring the right emotions out of a viewer. The music plays, but perhaps the visuals and narration steal some of the intimate thunder. Maybe that’s why I seem to critical about the caliber of artistry involved. His story overall is a sad and desperate one at times and if there are some songs that lyrically capture that then I could see why people enjoy his songs. However, I am thinking more people would find his music accessible if they were listening to a cover of one of his songs by another band. Many bands have indeed covered Daniel Johnston written songs. Perhaps one must dig deep and sift through the earlier workings to find the lightening he bottled up. The singing voice of Daniel Johnston: not pretty at all.
Daniel Johnston finds some success in the music industry, but loses the chance to really ride the ball out of the ballpark for a take all the bases homerun. The darkness of his mental illness and apparent obsession with Satan and other religious concepts leads the man into some troubles that may make your jaw drop when you think about it. I do not want to give away any spoilers if you are not familiar with the man’s story, but there truly is a lot of stranger than fiction incidents surrounding his life and some stunning life and death situations.
For fans of Daniel Johnston this is a must see, but for people who have never heard of him I think this is still a solid recommendation for a rental. The human subject is fascinating, creepy, and sympathetic all at once, making for a very entertaining documentary. The special features of the movie feature some behind the scenes moments at a screening of the film and almost feel like they should have been within the film itself because the candid glimpses of Daniel Johnston are as addictive as any reality show playing on television these days. There we go! Someone should make a Daniel Johnston reality show about him trying to keep it together and break back into the business! Or at least through his weirdness into the mix of Big Brother or the Bachelorette.