“Listen up and I’ll tell a story,” Daniel Johnston sings over a simple and halting piano track, lisping on his S-sounds, weaving and merging with the hiss of static that belies the recording’s homegrown origin, “about an artist growing old.”
As the song plays—a song that could be thought of as the theme song to the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, except that any song you hear in the film could be thought of as the theme song, because that’s the kind of songwriter Daniel is—you watch Super 8 home videos taken a decade before he released this song, on an album bearing his sketch of a weeping man with a hollowed-out skull. You see Daniel horse around with his family. You see some of his early, grotesque drawings—pale figures with painfully large rictus grins, standing in front of a crowd that bears placards reading LAUGH RIOT. You see his parents and siblings mug for the camera, or cringe away. You see a whole, rich life. And in the unspoken gap between picture and audio, you can sense what’s about to be lost, even as so much is about to be gained.
“The artist walks alone, and someone says behind his back, He’s got some gall to call himself that.”
You hear a wrong chord ring out with the shock of stumbling during a dance; Daniel’s songs are full of these uncorrected errors—that’s what makes them so unmistakably his. And, as you’re assured by the concert announcer who opens this documentary in which Daniel receives second billing only to the demon who’s plagued him for decades, Daniel is “the best singer-songwriter alive today.”
Moments later, the gulf of time is vaulted. The home movies have continued—Daniel was an obsessive archivist of his own soul even in adolescence—and you take a tour of his childhood bedroom. A lean, teenage Daniel shows off walls plastered with images: the American flag; the Mona Lisa; amateurish sketches of Captain America; green ducks with red bills, forged in bold splotches of Crayola marker (“I do a lot of ducks,” you’ll later hear Daniel say. “They’re like my armies and sometimes I use them in my battles against Satan.”) Teenage Daniel plays the piano, his back tucked into the left side of the frame.
And then, in a cut so abrupt it can only be softened by the beauty of Daniel’s voice, which no ravage of time or chemistry has yet dimmed, you see Daniel 30 years later, his back to the right side of the frame, sitting at a piano in a room plastered with images: The Beatles; Marilyn Monroe; amateur sketches of Captain America; a grinning frog with eyeballs perched on stalks, forged in bold blotches of paint (“The frog of innosence [sic]” you’ll later see this character labeled on the famous ballpoint sketch Daniel Johnston’s Symbolical Visions).
You focus on Daniel’s hands as they bounce on the keys. He’s the same player he’s always been, trafficking in pounding chords where his peers practice virtuosic riffs. But those hands look stiff and puffy from years of medication, so you have to wonder if they would be capable of much more than pounding chords.
His smile is still recognizable, rising into cheeks as half-moon plump as those in a child’s drawing. So is his chin, a small point jutting out of a face that seems to recede into his neck. But even more than the ballooning of his torso and the graying of his hair, what strikes you are his eyes. They’re squeezed shut below a furrowed brow as he sings, “I was guilt-stricken.” All of the prankishness of the home movies has been replaced by concentration as he sings, “I could not stay.”
So much has remained the same. So much has irreparably changed.
It seems like a simple trick, filling the frame with the spinning pegs of one of Daniel’s myriad audio diaries (“Late Nov—Early Dec,” the ballpoint annotation on this one reads, the winter of his brief stint at Abilene Christian College).
“I mean, I don’t know what’s going on here,” you hear Daniel muse, his voice nasal with the childlike quality that would only become more pronounced. “It’s like it’s not even real.”
You listen to the grinding of the tape player as Daniel considers the changes that have caught him so off-guard.
“Like in my hands now, I can feel it in my fingers.”
You know, from your vantage point in the future, that two things are beginning to happen: Daniel is blossoming as a songwriter, and will soon record his first two albums: Songs of Pain, and More Songs of Pain. And Daniel is also showing the earliest signs of what will for now be called manic depression.
“And I can feel it in my toes now, and my feet.”
It seems like a simple trick—if there’s no footage to go along with it, just show the tape spinning. But in focusing on the tape, rather than b-roll or archival material, you start to feel like you’re hearing a message in a bottle that was tossed into an ocean even more turbulent than this young man can imagine, a message now washed up on shore long after the ship slipped beneath the waves.
“And it’s happening so quick, you know.”
They seem familiar, these dreamy shots that recreate significant spaces, punch in on meaningful objects. Isn’t half of Errol Morris’ filmography made up of shots like this? Isn’t it so familiar that Documentary Now! could parody the technique and be sure of your knowing smile?
But as the camera drifts through the recreation of the Texas garage belonging to Daniel’s brother Dick, as it surveys the recreation of the jerry-rigged recording setup that Daniel created out of his pump organ and Dick’s weight bench, the familiar begins drifting into the eerie.
“I’m working on the album now,” you hear Daniel say in an audio letter to his old friend, David Thornberry. “I sound like some kind of MTV person, don’t I?” And as the camera roves the emptiness, that wry voice echoing out from 30 years ago, it comes to feel like the garage is a haunted house.
You linger for a while on a juice glass bearing the image of Casper the Friendly Ghost. And then you drift over to the drawing that will become the cover art for this album, a rough pen drawing of Casper. There are ghosts in this album, in its recording, and it seems a ghost may have been left behind, an echo of this spasm of creative energy.
“He was smiling through his own personal hell,” Daniel sings in the song he recorded about Casper. “Goodbye to them he had to go.” The syntax of that line is a bit inside out, but so much of Daniel’s music wears the inside on the outside.
You could easily forget the skill it takes to organize archival material. You could be forgiven for thinking the director and editor had an easy job, just stringing together old footage and calling it a movie. But it becomes clear early on that director Jeff Feuerzeig had more archival footage than most documentarians could ever dream of—you start wondering if Daniel demanded every moment of his life be recorded in some form.
You could be forgiven, too, for wondering why a documentary with no narration bears a writing credit. But there’s a writer’s skill in the poetry created by this arrangement of the archival material. It takes grace for a filmmaker to know when it’s your turn to fill in the significance of a glance, when it’s your turn to wonder why you feel this way.
A documentarian could so easily make a meal out of one particular moment of archival footage. In The Devil and Daniel Johnston, that moment arrives during MTV’s visit to Austin, when Daniel crashes an event and commandeers the camera’s attention. A documentarian could be so tempted to wring out every drop of pathos and import when Daniel stands next to host Peter Zeremba, holds up his cassette and says, with a pressure that suggests he might be yanked out of frame at any moment, “My name is Daniel Johnston, this is the name of my tape. It’s Hi, How Are You?, and I was having a nervous breakdown when I recorded it.” A documentarian could so easily ramp down the speed here, let the words echo dramatically, thrust an effect upon us.
But Feuerzeig cuts away the moment the sentence has escaped Daniel’s mouth. Hang on, you’re left thinking, what did he just say? You’re in the shoes of the people who watched it the first time it aired, looking around, asking each other, Did you hear that?
Only a few times across the two hours of The Devil and Daniel Johnston do you see a full performance. Usually, you watch a few lines of song and then move on. So when you realize you’ll be watching Daniel’s MTV performance of I Live My Broken Dreams in full, you know this moment meant something.
“It was his dream,” David Thornberry tells us just before the song. “Literally, that’s all he wanted to do was be on MTV.”
Only once in the performance—after Daniel has sung, “I see myself and I look really scattered,” with a look in his eyes that suggests he’s nostalgic for this moment before it’s even finished—does something interrupt. Over the instrumental break between verses, there’s another soundbite: “He basically scammed his way into it.” And then it’s back to Daniel, as he sings about, “the wildest summer that I ever knew.” And now his eyes look a little bit intimidated, as though he knows that as soon as this moment ends, everything will change, or else nothing will, and either would be terrifying.
Making sense of archival footage means making choices. Like the choice to spend six quiet seconds watching Daniel, now on the other side of MTV, nodding at nothing in someone’s basement, rather than jumping to the question his unseen friend asks (“Are you Daniel Johnston?”) and Daniel’s joyfully shouted response (“I used to be Daniel Johnston!”). Like the choice to spend another 10 seconds—after his friend asks, “Who are you now?” and Daniel responds, “I don’t know. I don’t know”—filling the screen with Daniel’s gleeful, wild laughter.
A wealth of archival material could easily be a hindrance. It takes a lot of choices to identify what’s worth showing, and how.
Like the choice to cut straight from Daniel’s laughter to photographs of the police reports documenting the incident shortly thereafter when Daniel beat his manager with a metal pipe.
There’s a shot that stands out from the rest of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and it comes after the devil takes over the film.
The home movie footage returns, showing the Christmas when Daniel became convinced his siblings were Satanists, the night they had to call the police to take him away.
The tapes return, and you watch the spinning pegs as Daniel describes the visions “that [appear] to me, like, in a really wild way, strangely and magically.”
You see homemade short films of Daniel, standing in some sort of industrial flatland warning us, “You must not give into the devil, ladies and gentlemen.”
The shot that stands out from the rest of The Devil and Daniel Johnston comes after his erstwhile publicist, Jeff Tartakov, takes over the film, too.
When Tartakov talks to the camera—which he does for much of the middle section of the film—he wears a T-shirt emblazoned with Daniel’s sketches, and he often wears a bit of a smirk, no matter what he’s discussing.
No matter if he’s discussing posing as Daniel’s manager in order to make the short-sighted decision to check him out of the psychiatric hospital to which Daniel’s friends had him committed (you hear early Daniel acolyte Louis Black agonize that though they “loved the notion of the crazy artist…because they were the pure people,” when faced with a truly sick artist, they did “the most pedestrian thing possible”); no matter if he’s talking about bringing Daniel to New York to meet with Sonic Youth for a legendarily disastrous press junket (you hear Daniel scream “The devil has you, buddy!” at Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley) before leaving Daniel there when things got “a little out of control;” no matter if he’s discussing any of the other misadventures that contributed to the myth of Daniel Johnston (you see Daniel howling as he performs his song, “Don’t Play Cards With Satan;” you hear Daniel phoning his friends from another psychiatric hospital to explain that it was Satan who forced him to chase an elderly stranger out of a second story window); no matter what, the corner of Tartakov’s mouth tends to jerk up, and his eyes tend to bug comically out.
Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe there’s still some thrill in the memories, no matter how traumatic.
But after you hear the tape of the advertisement Daniel wanted Tartakov to send Mountain Dew, because he couldn’t do so from inside a psychiatric hospital (“They tell me I’m crazy here—because I love the Mountain Dew so much!”), after you see footage of the envelopes that Daniel sent Tartakov from the hospital (addressed to Jeff Terrorcow, Jeff Tarteecough, Jeff Tarrycoffin, decorated with a weeping frog of innosence who asks, “Hi, how could you?”), and just before he starts negotiating a major label contract for his schizophrenic, bipolar client (a negotiation that will break down when Daniel learns the same label is home to Satanic band Metallica, who surely intend to kill him), there’s that shot that stands out.
There have been plenty of talking-head interviews in the film so far. Some have even featured cutaways to other material—Louis Black’s interview cuts away to Black showing off the bridge in Austin where he found Daniel preaching in a river, right before Black checked him into a psychiatric hospital and Tartakov promptly checked him out; Daniel’s parents’ interview cuts away to them tearfully showing photos of the wrecked small plane that Daniel’s father had to crash land after Daniel ripped the keys from the ignition and threw them out the window on their flight home from a SXSW performance that Tartakov calls, “Really, the highlight of my career”—but this cutaway from Jeff Tartakov’s interview is different.
Just as Tartakov starts describing writing up that contract on behalf of Daniel, you cut to a shot of the dealmaker sitting cross-legged in a chair, wearing sunglasses with big, bright red lenses. The camera slowly pushes in on Tartakov, who smirks. It appears mirthless, but it’s hard to make out quite what he’s thinking with his eyes obscured behind those very red lenses.
You think you know the shape that a documentary about an artist will take. So when Daniel’s fortunes fall, you can imagine you’re headed for the typical All Is Lost moment that will lead to the typical Soaring Redemption moment.
You’re wrong. The film jumps ahead a decade to the present day, and Feuerzeig begins pulling the rug out.
You think you know the rules of a documentary interview. When the parents of an artist sit in their living room reminiscing on that artist’s story, you expect it’s happening somehow outside of time and space. You certainly don’t expect to learn that that artist has been in the house the whole time, sleeping late, puttering around.
And so ¾ of the way through, The Devil and Daniel Johnston becomes a different film. An unspoken question—where did Daniel end up?—is answered as this becomes the story of an aging family finding a delicate balance.
You watch Daniel and his elderly parents go through their routine—trips to church, trips to Walmart—Daniel walking with the slow shuffle, the bowed head and large belly wrapped in too-high sweatpants, that instantly signals “mentally ill person.” Where were you expecting this story of a man with severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to end up? the film begs of us. Were you expecting the magical cures offered by inspirational dramas that banish mental illness through force of will and love? And at the same time, What do you expect of a mentally ill man shuffling down the street in small town Texas? the film begs of us. Do you expect that kind of man could have been the subject of a Rolling Stoneprofile that called him a “musical hero”?
This is a different film than the one you thought you were watching, but Daniel is living a different life than the one he thought he would be living.
Still, when you see him happily singing with his new band (whose members are all decades younger than Daniel, and whose lead singer is slowly revealed in his interview to be wearing a T-shirt that reads FUCK SATAN), or when you see a Los Angeles gallery owner preparing to proudly showcase Daniel’s drawings (“I’m not looking for people who are part of movements,” the gallery owner attests. “I think Daniel Johnston is his own movement”), it’s easy to think the film may have found some kind of storybook ending.
But then Daniel offers his first on-camera soundbite. From out of frame, the producers ask Daniel’s parents if he might perform some of his old songs for the film, and Daniel wanders through in the out-of-focus background, sticking his head into the room to say, “I don’t even know my old songs,” before moving on about his business, as disinterested in the film as a teenager grabbing a snack during his parents’ cocktail party.
He’s found a sort of stability. But in the bargain, as his mother says, he lost the tune and he lost the words. And as it begins to wrap up, The Devil and Daniel Johnston begs some of the most complex questions ever presented in a story about the connection between creativity and mental illness.
Are the qualities that we value in Daniel’s music rooted in his illness? Would any of his art be of value if we didn’t know the artist was ill? Could this art even be created by someone who wasn’t ill, or would these songs and drawings somehow lack an essential energy? If the qualities we revere are tied to his illness, and if, as we’ve learned, he used to go off his meds a few days before a show because “he knew the performance would be better the crazier he was,” are we complicit in his erratic self-care? But if he made a choice to create art that fulfilled him and now fulfills millions, is that willing choice something we should condemn? Does viewing his art through this prism put him in a box that denies him the kind of consideration another artist would be given?
And on and on, questions without simple answers, questions that seem to contradict one another, questions all the way down.
It all ends with a painfully intimate sequence of Daniel dancing in his room, a large frog of innosence grinning from the wall behind him.
Eyes shut tight, he stands still, and then he begins to move slowly, as though he’s warming up, exploring the air around him. He never quite finds what you might think of as a rhythm—while you can’t hear whatever he’s dancing to, it’s almost certainly not the melancholy Daniel Johnston song you’re hearing, the one with the refrain that goes, “Held the hand of the devil”—but he finds something that seems to work for him. And soon, the dancing takes on a lurching quality, with sudden jerks of the arms; his face takes on an intensity, as though this is hard work but he’s going to get it right. He runs in place, he rolls his head around and around. He’s still the adolescent you met two hours ago, horsing around for the camera’s amusement.
He spins in circles. Sweat begins to stain the front of his purple T-shirt. He punches the air. And then he grits his teeth, and as he does something that seems like beating several invisible drums, his eyes squeeze tight and it looks very much like he’s begun to weep.
But then the image is overtaken by orange flares and he’s gone before you can make any sense what might have been going on in his head.