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THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON

Director: JEFF FEUERZEIG

U.S.A.| 2005. COLOUR. DOLBY DIGITAL STEREO. 110 MIN.


As is the case with the resurgent Brian Wilson, there’s undoubtedly a cheering aspect to a great artist’s perseverance in the face of mental illness, yet also an apparently inevitable freak-show element to their ongoing accommodation with their inner demons. This sensitive documentary about Daniel Johnston, a Texas-based singer-songwriter, no stranger to mental healthcare, whose piercingly direct slices of lo-fi pop have earned him near-legendary status amongst fans and music-industry insiders alike, manages the not-inconsiderable achievement of keeping both these strands in adept balance, unfolding a compellingly bizarre individual back-story without ever losing sight of compassion for its evidently troubled subject.

Made possible in no small measure by Johnston’s own obsessive audio-video self-documentation, Jeff Feuerzeig’s film occupies similar territory to ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ and ‘Tarnation’, and the trajectory it unfolds is no less extraordinary. We move from the high-school home-movies which so concerned Johnston’s God-fearing parents, through musical discovery in MTV’s mid-80s swoop on happenings in Austin, to an increasingly high profile among the likes of Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth. All of this was concurrent with institutionalisation, an unfortunate encounter with LSD, and edgy self-accompanied live shows where Johnston’s emotive fixation with Satan threatened a very public breakdown. The contrast between the disturbingly perky geek of his youthful years and the heavily-medicated corpulent figure today, enjoying the widest success of his career, paints its own picture. Judiciously assembled testimony from friends and an obviously loving family fill out the details, psychotic episodes and all. It all adds up to an engrossing, ultimately touching portrait of a unique performer.—Trevor Johnston.

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