Wednesday, May 03, 2006

THE DEVIL & DANIEL JOHNSTON - tragic music doc

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON is a well put-together documentary about artist and musician, Daniel Johnston. Growing up in West Virginia, Daniel was a prodigious talent, making Super-8 horror movies, drawing comics, and recording unique music with disarmingly honest lyrics. He went to art school where he found his muse - an unrequited love - and ended up in Austin where he wowed the local indie music scene, picking up awards with ease. Daniel was one of the first people to use MTV to get his music out and even went to New York to record with Sonic Youth. However, the gargantuan success that he felt was his right did not come. Perhaps that's because Daniel's music, with its faux-naif instrumentals and heart-rending lyrics was too far out for the mainstream. But the bigger reason is that Daniel is a manic depressive who has spent much of his life in mental institutions or heavily medicated. Indeed, when Kurt Cobain started wearing one of his T-shirts and the music world was clamouring for his music, Daniel was oblivious in a mental home.

Daniel know lives with his frail parents who take care of him - coming off meds every now and then for a gallery appeareance or a concert. The director of the documenary definitely plays this as a happy ending. However, the feeling I got when watching this fascinating documentary was sadness. I'd never heard of Daniel Johnston before so the cult-thing was new to me. And I was left with the impression that he is an interesting musician but a really great artist. I was also left with the impression that aside from his close friends, family and original manager there was an uncomfortable feeling of exploitation or at least bad taste. In particular, there is a scene where Daniel is playing a set at the famous CBGB's in New York. The hippest crowd is there and Daniel is one of his delusional states where he thinks Satan is out to get him. He starts to proselytize the crowd getting ever more and more manic. The crowd thinks this is all awesome - part of the act, right? Finally, but after a long while, someone stops the act. So you can watch this just to find out about an undoubtedly brilliant artist. But you can also watch this documentary to find out how the music and art industries deal with brilliant but damaged artists.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON showed at Sundance 2005 where Jeff Feuerzeig won the Director's Award (Documentaries). It went on limited release in the US on March 31st and opens in the UK on May 5th 2006. It opens in Japan on September 30th 2006. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON is released on Region 1 DVD in September.

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