We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There are many reasons to avoid The Devil and Daniel Johnston, director Jeff Feuerzeig’s portrait of the onetime underground-rock sensation and current outsider-art star, but these do not include quality or integrity. This is a sober and intelligent documentary that doesn’t exploit the schizophrenic Johnston—which is more than can be said about some of the people who have peddled his childlike ditties and drawings over the years. Of course, the filmmaker would never have made this movie if Johnston weren’t really weird. But unlike such boosters as Kurt Cobain, Feuerzeig doesn’t present Johnston’s strange obsessions as untrammeled genius. He leaves that to others, yielding a study that’s as diverse as the reactions to Johnston’s lovelorn songs and eyeball-fixated doodles. Born into a West Virginia Christian fundamentalist family—yes, he really does believe in the Devil—Johnston began expressing himself as a child through drawing, moviemaking, and a bratty sort of conceptual art: cassette recordings of his mother’s entreaties that he behave. At Kent State University, he fell in love with one Laurie Allen, who already had a boyfriend. Her subsequent marriage inspired the broken-hearted ballads that made Johnston’s reputation after he landed in 1985 in Austin, Texas, more or less his base ever since. At his peaks, Johnston has performed before indulgent audiences, had his songs covered by indie-rock luminaries, and even gotten signed, post-Nevermind, to Atlantic. These successes were offset, however, by several stays in mental institutions, periods of drugged-out lethargy, and numerous incidents that freaked the shit out of his parents, long-suffering manager Jeff Tartakov, or such temporary guardians as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. These eyewitnesses’ anecdotes are fascinating, and all but Johnston’s most dedicated followers should be stunned by a few of them. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is not recommended to anyone who’s unnerved by mental illness, religious fundamentalism, or art-world hucksterism—or who simply can’t imagine hearing “Speeding Motorcycle” ever again. But Feuerzeig renders his subject’s life eerily compelling, and he skillfully assembles the shards of a personality that Johnston himself may never fully reintegrate.—Mark Jenkins