Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Movie Review)

In the past seven days, I've become extraordinarily obsessed with the music and artwork of one Daniel Johnston.

Some of you may recall one of his more famous sketches from a t-shirt Kurt Cobain repeatedly wore on stage and to signings. Some of you may have even heard an artist like Beck or Wilco or Flaming Lips cover one of his more folksy tunes. Or maybe you recognize him from a VW commercial.

And some of you, like me, may be ashamed to realize just what you've missed out on these past several years.

For me, my obsession with Johnston worked like this:

  • Washington goes to Austin last weekend for work.
  • Washington happens to be there during Austin City Limits, for which I was terribly envious.
  • Washington returns with a cute little t-shirt (a gift for yours truly) sporting an alien looking frog and the words, "Hi, how are you?"
Within a day, I was researching the artist and queuing up a documentary made about his life: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), which I watched this past weekend.

There's not much else for me to say, except that I've already legally downloaded a couple songs, and expect to purchase an album or two in the next week (as much for the artwork as the songs themselves).

But first, a bit about the film.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston offers a disheartening glimpse into the life of a manic depressive whose state was exacerbated by drug use in the mid to late 80s.

That is to say, he was already prone to unhealthy highs and lows — in regards to his emotional and psychological state — but met a veritable point of not return after a bad trip made it nearly impossible for friends and family alike to "deal" with him.

The end result: the man who took South by Southwest by storm on more than one occasion — the man who inspired the likes of Kurt Cobain and counted people like "Sonic Youth" among his closest friends — spent several long stints of his life in asylums, never wholly able to pursue a career as a musician or an artist.

An ex-girlfriend interviewed in the film espoused her fear that Daniel was a bit too much like that proverbial flower in the desert — the rare one that blooms rather beautifully, and then disappears wholly unknown to man.

I think she's on to something there, as Johnston has a bit of a cult following by musical crowds (particularly in Austin), but otherwise isn't a name that's ever made it into the mainstream, even though he first entered the public sphere more than 20 years ago.

In any event, his story is a sad one and even when he sings out of key, his lyrics — which have a sort of Indie Folk quality — are beautiful.

I was sorry to watch his unfortunate descent, though I think this film likewise demonstrates why so many past artists, a la Van Gogh, weren't fully appreciated until after their death: they're oftentimes so much so a danger to themselves that they can't forge a career out of their talent: rather, their talent is a creature of the very thing that marks their undoing.

But Johnston is still very much so alive, and only in his mid-40s. His life's aspiration was to be famous, and — for whatever it's worth — he's found at least one new fan in the Midwest.

FINAL GRADE: A-

3 comments:

Beth said...

I've seen snippets on Sundance or IFC; I need to see the entire thing. The album is on eMusic, if you're a member; great album.

disgruntled world citizen said...

we need to be netflix friends. :D

Technomonk said...

I just listened to some of his stuff off of Rhapsody and WOW. Different. Raw. Moving. He seems like great music to read a Philip K. Dick book to.