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  Devil and Daniel Johnston, The Hi, How Are You?
Year: 2005
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Stars: Daniel Johnston, Various
Genre: Documentary, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Even when Daniel Johnston was a baby, his mother Mabel knew there was something different about him. He grew into a gifted child who was among the brightest in his class, but he had difficulty following authority, and was more interested in creating his music, short films and pictures. And so it would continue throughout his life as he endeavoured to chase his dream of being an artist, and a successful artist at that, but he had an enemy who would do his best to stop him in his tracks. That enemy, Daniel believed, was the Devil, as his deeply religious West Virginian upbringing, which he had intially rejected, grew to dominate his thinking. Yet really Daniel's worst enemy was himself as he suffered the ravages of manic depression.

In spite of a mixture of bad luck and judgement warped by his illness, Johnston has made a name for himself, mainly as an outsider artist, but also as a notorious character on the American alternative music scene. Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary sets out the facts plainly and with no re-enactments to be seen; the only reconstructions are of places with no people around. Luckily for him, his subject has been filmed and recorded extensively throughout his life, and good use of this footage, mostly home movie quality, is on display. Daniel also had a habit of not only recording his songs on cassette tape, but also his thoughts and "letters" in audio form, and we hear snippets of these accompanied by closeups of the tapes.

This is probably the right approach, as it could have wallowed in sentimentality of the "O! The tortured, misunderstood genius!" kind, but prefers to let the viewer make up their own mind. Johnston's art divides audiences in that you'll either hear his adolescent sounding, whiny songs, with the singer either thumping away at a piano or strumming on a guitar, as pretty awful, or be charmed by their naivety and lack of sophistication. It's as if he got into the way of doodling and noodling early on and never grew out of it, perhaps because those around him encouraged him - but was this the right reaction? Johnston's mental problems seriously began when he reached college, where he had difficulty completing his studies and his doting parents eventually took him out there, but he was already making a name for himself, in a small manner, as a musician.

At college he had met a girl called Laurie who he became infatuated with, but this was not reciprocated. Nevertheless, just as once Daniel got hold of an idea he was unwilling to let it go, at the time this documentary was completed he was still writing songs about her. For a lot of the film, you don't know whether you're watching a tragedy or a comedy, such is Daniel's self-destructive and erratic behaviour, but after a while it's possible to get angry. With so many telling him he has genuine talent, you wonder whether he would have had a more peaceful life if he hadn't been boosted by their praise. When you hear the story related by his tearful father of the time when Daniel had stopped his medication to play concerts better which ended up with him crashing the plane they were flying in because he wanted to be Casper the Friendly Ghost, it's clear that his renown was a double edged sword. As the film closes, Johnston is out of hospital and playing music again, seemingly at peace (though interviews with him are left to a short piece at the end), but with the ominous note that his parents, who look after him and are now elderly, will not be around for much longer.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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