By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
4 stars out of five
Dir: Jeff Feuerzeig
Cast: Daniel Dale Johnston, Bill Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Dave Thornberry
"There is no great genius without a tincture of madness." The words of Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca could describe the troubled yet gifted Daniel Johnston--singer, songwriter and subject of director Jeff Feuerzeig's thoughtful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
The film provides an excellent insight into the music and mind of one of the most original, talented and sadly neglected songwriters of the last 25 years.
Neglected, that is, commercially. Critically, his art has been recognized by some of rock 'n' roll's big names, none more so than Kurt Cobain, who wore a T-shirt bearing the cover of Johnston's Hi, How Are You album to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Luminaries such as Beck, Sonic Youth and Nina Persson (of the Cardigans) have also covered his songs.
They were attracted by works full of clever lyrics, combining the humor of Jonathan Richman (to whom the twentysomething Johnston bore an uncanny resemblance) and imagination of Syd Barrett, all wrapped up in sublime, infectious melodies.
Thanks to Johnston's almost obsessive recordings of his life on audio cassette, film and video, as well as hundreds of autobiographical pop songs that crop up throughout the movie, Feurzeig's project had ample material to draw on in depicting his complex world.
After showing precocious artistic ability in his youth he wound up at Kent State University, Ohio, where he met the muse that, in Johnston's words, "inspired 1,000 songs."
It is a tragic case of unrequited love as the beautiful Laurie Allen, with whom he is absolutely besotted, is seen in original footage telling Johnston she loves him.
The scenes in which Johnston talks about her are among the most moving in the entire documentary.
Curiously, however, while we see Laurie as a young woman, she is the only key player in Johnston's life that doesn't appear in a contemporary setting, as if she's locked in time at the beginning of the 1980s.
The latter part of that decade signals the beginning of his fight against mental illness, with his unstable behavior typified by a flight from Texas to his parents' home in his father's light aircraft, when he switched off the engine in midair before tossing the key out of the window.
As a teenager, Johnston was a reluctant Christian, spending his time in church on Sunday morning eyeing babes rather than the Bible. Yet, as his manic depression deepens, he becomes more and more religious, ranting about his battle against Satan.
Generally the tone of the documentary is sympathetic and, if anything, too comprehensive, resulting in a running time of 110 minutes that might stretch the attention span of some viewers.
Yet that is a minor gripe about a film that will appeal not only to followers of the man but also to anyone who appreciates good songwriting, catchy melodies and an examination of the human condition.
Whether you have an interest in music or mental illness, this movie has something for you.
The film ends in Texas with Johnston being cared for by his elderly parents in a basement room not unlike the one he occupied as a teenager in West Virginia, as if he's reached Shakespeare's seventh age of man prematurely.
That soliloquy from As You Like It describes a "second childishness" and Johnston's vulnerability and innocence are a reminder of the youthful face that beams out at you in the first part of the movie.
Johnston now seems to be on the road to rehabilitation, and this documentary should introduce his music and art to an even wider audience, as well as giving long-term fans a compelling glimpse into the life of one of rock music's true mavericks.
The movie opens today.