Friday, 14 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Devil & Daniel Johnston

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Historic photo or modern-day hipster pushing the archaic sound format revival too far?
The downfall of the talented artist is a common story throughout the history of popular music.

It's by equal turns sad and fascinating, and the resulting docos are car crash stuff - we can't look away, whether its Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Syd Barrett, Michael Hutchence, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, etc etc.

The Devil & Daniel Johnston matches that same description, but with the added twist that Johnston was still alive, still recording, and still touring when it was made (he's still alive at the time of writing in 2017).

That he could be a somewhat active participant in his own documentary (released in 2005) only makes his story all the sadder though. By then, Johnston had long been a passenger in his own life and his presence in the film is like that of a ghost haunting the house where he used to live.

In the eyes of some, Johnston was a genius. His music and art made him a cult favourite on the Austin music scene in the late '80s, and his fame rose to bizarre new heights, partly thanks to Kurt Cobain championing his music, in the early '90s. All the while, Johnston was suffering severe mental health issues and bouncing in and out of institutions.


The Devil & Daniel Johnston is an encompassing biography of a music industry fringe dweller, a deeply troubled artist, and a man battling his many demons. It's insight and understanding of his condition, talent and personality is brilliant.

There's an abundance of home video and audio recordings Johnston made over his early years to drawn on, and director Feuerzeig blends in contemporary interviews, live gigs, photos and Johnston's own artwork to tell the muso's story with an almost unparalleled amount of depth. The incredible surfeit of first-hand historical material is not only the greatest possible gift to the film-maker, but it confirms a central idea of the film - that Johnston always presumed he would be famous, and courted the idea, sought it out, and lived in preparation for it. The sad part is he was never really ready for it and never could have dealt with it. Real life, let alone the life of a famed musician, was difficult enough.

This notion is important because it somewhat offsets the uneasy feeling that sitting down to watch this is akin to paying the man outside the freak show tent. There can be a fine line between exploitation and celebration, and The Devil & Daniel Johnston rides it pretty hard at times, particularly when showing Johnston watch footage of his old flame, or seeing him dance over the credits. Ultimately, this is the story of one man's journey to hell and back, and its unclear how capable he is of understanding what this doco means.

If you can shake that troubling idea, embrace the sentiment that this is actually what Johnston always wanted, and take the doco at face value - which I highly recommend doing - The Devil & Daniel Johnston is a remarkable look into the world of an artist that lost his mind and struggled to find it again, along the way creating some incredible music and art. That people can watch this and maybe hear True Love Will Find You In The End, The Story Of An Artist, and Some Things Last A Long Time for the first time is a beautiful thing.

Ultimately sad yet weirdly uplifting, this is a story of a troubled yet fascinating man, told with a deft and comprehensive touch.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

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