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The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

  Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig
Starring: Daniel Johnston
Links: The Devil and Daniel Johnston on the IMDb, Official site
Genre: Documentary

This movie gets: 9.00 (1 rating) Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

"Story of an artist" - a review by pearly

I first heard of Daniel Johnston in 1995, when Pearl Jam played his song Walking the Cow on their underground radio show, Pollution Radio. It was an odd little song which stuck in my head, and though I never bought any of his stuff at the time, when his covers album came out earlier this year, I was instantly drawn back into his world, and I have enjoyed that album a lot over the last few months.

Perfect timing then, that this year's MIFF was showing this film: a documentary about who Daniel Johnston is, and how he ended up where he is today. I didn't know much about his life, but I was interested to find out, and The Devil and Daniel Johnston proved to be a fascinating documentary about a truly fascinating man.

Born to religious parents, Johnston was always a creative person, but as a boy, he took joy in baiting his mother to get a reaction from her. As time went on, Johnston became more creative, in both drawing and music, but he was always a little strange, and later was diagnosed with a mental illness with which he has battled for the whole of his life. The Devil and Daniel Johnston tells his biographical story, stopping along the way to look at just how this one man became such a legend amongst the independent music world, finding friends and aides in such people as Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo.

There are a few factors which make this a great documentary. Firstly, Johnston himself is an intriguing individual, and his life story has been filled with enough bizarre stories as well as more serious moments which give his biography a great depth. Secondly, he's in the music scene, which is of interest to me personally, and I liked learning more about his journey and the people that he bumped into along the way. Thirdly, the interviews with Johnston's family and friends are both very personal, and therefore very enlightening, as well as being well shot and put together. But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Johnston being who he is, there is a vast amount of footage and so on available for use in a documentary which makes it spellbinding viewing. Johnston spent his earlier years making films with his brother, and even filmed everyday events, and later on in life, he obsessively taped spoken word diaries to send to friends, and all of this is on show in the documentary, making it all the more fascinating, in the same way that the footage did in Capturing the Friedmans (2003).

Johnston's life is not dissimilar to that of Brian Wilson, troubled, yet creatively genius. I also found parallels between him and Conor Oberst in a more creative sense: both have produced music that it often not the easiest thing to listen to, but if you're persistent with it, it can pay off in a big way (both, in particular, have great lyrics, something which I find to be very important in music). Lastly, his story is quite similar to Wesley Willis', who also had a biographical documentary made about him (Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll (2003)), and who I also first heard of on Pollution Radio (when they played They Threw Me out of Church, a song about his schizophrenia). This documentary, however, is a notch above Willis'.

This documentary won't be for everyone, but it has definitely been one of my favourites of the last couple of years. Nearly perfect, and wonderful timing.

pearly gives this movie 9 out of 10.
Review created on Mon 25 Jul 2005

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