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Thursday, October 27, 2011

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston", artist, sick man, myth

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Love when a film leaves you wondering and asking questions yourself. If these questions are about music, its even better. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is that sort of movie.

The story of Daniel Johnston is fascinating. "Thanks" to his "special" behaviour, filming and taping everything, we witness his entire and incredible life. What we see is intriguing and moving. In that sense the documentary is not about a musician, but about someone who suffers, and tries to deal with his manic depression/bipolar disorder. Daniel's life captivates the viewer because the mixture between his artistic creativity and his madness. Moments of astonishing craziness (the NY affair, the plane, seeing the Devil everywhere) followed by bits of his music is a combination that speaks and impacts for itself.

But as the film develops it reveals how difficult it is to separate the musician from the seriously ill person. Johnston's is not, like many artists in history, an eccentric or a slightly weird outsider. He's a fragile and highly sensitive human being with a really and very serious mental problem, that brings him to moments of profound depression, delirium and rage accesses, affecting the people that surrounds him, parents (a special note to them, as they have a couple of scenes where emotion just reduce them to tears), family, friends (including his quite peculiar manager), musicians, etc. The film doesn't hide any bit of him acting oddly, or just falling apart, going in and out of mental hospitals while he tries to keep his prolific work. But his mental condition permeates (it couldn't be any other way) everything he creates. And that brings me to a double question.

So while the portrayal of his life is fascinating and touching, I have some concerns/doubts about the musician itself. I know about Daniel's cult music status, and that his songs have been covered by hundreds of artists, but after seeing the film, I wonder to which extent that fame and prestige has to do with his complex, troubled character, and not just his music talents. It's obvious director Jeff Feuerzeig loves Johnston work, both music and drawings. But in my opinion, the film doesn't care much about we, the ones that don't know a lot about Daniel, or that simply are not their fans.  

Because for the "regular" viewer, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" offers a strange musician portrayal. About someone tortured inside that creates music... and becomes a star... without knowing the reasons why. Feuerzeig explains us his music career with brush strokes, so for me at least is a bit hard to believe how Daniel gets his shot at MTV, how he is capable of working with Jad Fair and Sonic Youth, or how he manages to gather 3.000 people in an auditorium after a forced hiatus because his illness. Moreover, what we see in that gig is someone singing really out of tune, suffering on stage and offering songs that cannot we qualified as extraordinary (I'm not saying his music is bad by no means, I'm just saying that what we see/hear at the documentary doesn't justify his cult status). So, what's up with their fans? They were all converted just because Kurt Cobain wore a shirt of him for a while? Why we don't have more interviews and thoughts of fans about his music, and why we don't get more information about how their career evolved and it is considered? It left me wondering the same sort of questions that "Exit Through the Gift Shop" did. Who decides what's art, in this case with music, who elevated Johnston's to a myth category?

It is a complex movie about an equally complex person, so it's kind of logical the review has to be a bit "tricky" too. As a film about a human being with serious issues that tries to deal with them while offers the world his talents, this movie is outstanding and absorbing. But as a music portray, to me, its incomplete or just for die-hard fans. Having said that, is a must-see oddity

SCORE: 7/10

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