Daniel Johnston was a bright, Beatles-loving boy who always wanted to be famous. As a kid he was a precocious artist, making Super 8 movies, drawing pictures and recording innumerable songs on scribbled cassettes. His parents and siblings were deeply religious, but Johnston would have none of it. One of the central ironies of his life is that, when it became clear he was losing his mind, it was also when he claimed to have found God.
Jeff Feuerzeig won the Best Director prize at last year's Sundance for this documentary portrait of the artist as a young man filled with promise, which has gone largely unfulfilled because he's been so busy battling demons. The difference between Johnston and a lot of tormented creative types is that his demons really have been satanic entities straight out of the Old Testament.
Access to hundreds of hours of video and audio footage allows writer-director Feuerzeig to offer a fascinating, highly detailed account of Johnston's transfiguration from West Virginia teen savant to unstable Austin folk hero.
It's both troubling and compelling, for example, to listen to tapes Johnston made as young man of his mother's fire-and-brimstone tirades. She berated him for his obsession with art, calling him "an unprofitable servant of the Lord." His response was to refer to himself as "an unserviceable prophet of the Lord," and to make movies in which he played the dual roles of himself and the woman of the house, wearing curlers, serving strange, green Kool-Aid meals, and railing against his "satanic cartoons."
One day, after he graduated from high school, Johnston literally ran away to join the circus. He neglected to tell anyone in his family where he was going. In the mid-'80s he turned up in Austin, where he fell in with a group of local musicians, cleaned tables at a McDonald's, and scammed his way onto an MTV show spotlighting the city's music scene. As a result, he became something of a local celebrity, attracting a sizable fan base for his bare-bones, childlike songs, and winning a number of best-songwriter polls in the local music press.
As his fame grew so, unfortunately, did Johnston's psychological problems and his preoccupation with the devil. Cameras always seem to have been rolling wherever he went, so we're privy to delusional rants about the significance of the numbers 9 and 666. He began using LSD heavily. The drug did not mix well with his deepening manic depression and, after attacking his manager with a lead pipe in 1986, Johnston was institutionalized for the first time.
Over the next two decades he would be hospitalized again and again, periodically refusing to take his meds because they deadened him creatively. This had the effect of letting him produce fragile and remarkable compositions and then leading him into situations that would result in his re-institutionalization.
Feuerzeig clearly has enormous empathy for his subject, walking the line between explication and exploitation with intelligence and sensitivity. The film never romanticizes its subject as a misunderstood genius or a musical martyr, providing instead an honest assessment of Johnston's talent and his troubles. This is not someone who was ever going to find mainstream acceptance.
And yet, the more we hear his work, the more weirdly wonderful it seems. Given the obstacles he faced, it's amazing his music has made the mark that it has. Kurt Cobain called Johnston the world's "greatest living songwriter." Beck, Pearl Jam, Yo La Tengo, Wilco, Sonic Youth and dozens of others have covered his songs. It may not be everything he was shooting for -- he dreamed of The Beatles reuniting to serve as his back-up band -- but all things considered, it's astonishingly close.