The Devil and Daniel Johnstonrecommended viewing

An unprofitable servant of God
Jeff Feuerzeig
Daniel Johnston, et al
The Setup: 
Documentary about artist / musician Daniel Johnston and his experience with manic depression.

A friend at work and I share an interest in documentaries about crazy people, so I recommended Grey Gardens and she recommended this, which sounded interesting, so to the top of my list it went. I know that Daniel Johnston was considered by some to be “the greatest songwriter alive today,” and I guess I was picturing a sort of 40-year-old Brooklyn hipster type who writes well-crafted, Randy Newman-esque songs and struggles with big mood swings. Well, I had NO IDEA.

We see Daniel as an adult taking to the stage, and think “Wait a minute, this guy is a fat schlub in sweatpants, and his amazing songwriting sounds like a bleating wounded lamb over a four-year-old pounding atonally on a guitar?” Yep! This was my first clue that my expectations were completely off, and that this movie might prove far more interesting than I expected.

It seems that Daniel was extremely likable and outgoing as a child. Then in adolescence he “lost his confidence,” according to his mother, and started to become inward, asocial and bitter. He made tons of home movies and made an entire series in which he would play his mother as a horrible, screeching harpy always on Daniel’s back. Daniel also makes home movies of everything and tapes everything, so the documentary is chock-a-block with actual footage of himself and his family growing up, so when Daniel’s mother is haranguing him about how he doesn’t work for the church, making him an “unprofitable servant of God,” because all he does is “sit here drawing those satanic cartoons to corrupt the minds of the young people,” you are not just hearing him tell about it, you are actually hearing her yell at him! Obviously this wealth of material elevates this documentary far above the typical reminescences of events, and you don’t have to try to figure out what people are lying about or fudging over—you’re hearing it.

Daniel grows, turning his room into a messy “art factory” that turns out songs, drawings, films… what have you. His parents send him to a Christian College, but it soon becomes apparent that he won’t be able to manage there. He is desperately in love with this girl, Laurie, that works where he works and clearly doesn’t have any idea of the depth of Daniel’s feelings. He considers her to be his muse and creates endles numbers of songs and drawings about her. He is sent to Texas to live with his brother. He become unmanageable [he refuses to work, help out, or be productive in any way except artistically], and is sent to live with his sister.

So by now you’re settling into this movie’s vibe and you think you have a sense of what you can expect. Then you hear that Daniel disappeared from his sister’s on a moped. He ended up joining a carnival. One day at the carnival, he was beaten for taking too long in the porta-potty, and he wandered in a daze into town. He went to a church and asked for help, and they established him in an apartment… and this is how he ended up in Austin, TX.

Around this time he was producing tons of music, and finally made a tape called “Hi, How Are You?,” and simply started handing it out to everyone. He ended up giving it to the editor of an Austin paper, who put it in while he’s working and is blown away. Daniel starts shooting to fame, gets on MTV, and ends up winning the Austin Music Awards for best folk artist and best singer / songwriter, which was fairly controversial because, as one guy says “Austin has many singer / songwriters who can actually play a guitar.” By the way, during this time, the only way for the people at MTV and others to reach Daniel was to call him at his job at McDonalds.

Daniel starts getting unmanageable, and at a certain point bashes his manager over the head with a lead pipe! His friends have him hospitalized, which causes one to have a fair bit of soul-searching about the famous “insane” artists of history and how they despised the small-minded folks who wouldn’t understand them and throw them in an institution—and yet here they are, throwing their crazy brilliant artist friend in the looney bin.

His music is heard by the band Sonic Youth and Daniel is invited to NYC… eventually the members of the band are hunting all over New York and New Jersey trying to find him. Back home, he barges into a woman’s house and terrorizes her to the point that she jumps out a second-story window. Daniel says “I didn’t see that, the demons did that.” He is now talking non-stop about the devil and is obsessed with Mountain Dew. He plays South by Southwest, where he is a sensation, then his father comes to pick him up. They fly home in his father’s small plane—and Daniel seizes the controls and takes it into a downward spin, laughing all the while. They live.

There’s more, but you get the idea. The movie is very good, if only for being such a bizarre story—and as you can imagine from what you’ve read here, just when you think it can’t get any weirder… and the presence of so many tapes and videos and drawing make for an excellent documentary. The filmmakers also fill out the spaces that they don’t have footage for in very intelligent ways, for example, showing what the characters would be seeing as they do whatever they are verbally describing, like riding a bus or driving around New York.

The movie also brings up a ton of interesting issues. Daniel’s songs, at least as heard in the movie, are not all that easy to listen to, so when I hear that the audience at South by Southwest went crazy for him, I have to wonder how many of them were mocking or encouraging him just to act goofier. There are all the interesting facets of his relationships with his parents and siblings, and also the reactions of his friends, who feel that they have a true artistic genius in their midst, and they way they work tirelessly to promote and preserve his art, but also the questions that his difficult behavior raises for them. One can also easily see how his music paved the way for lots of neo-folk artists now popular, such as The Moldy Peaches, who did many of the well-recived songs in Juno.

So there ya go, a fascinating, well-done and thought-provoking night at the documentaries.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s a fascinating documentary that brings up a ton of interesting issues.