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The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

July 5, 2009

9/10 Hit Songs About Casper the Friendly Ghost

I really can’t remember what compelled me to bump this movie up to my number one slot on Netflix last year, but I’m glad I did and I still can’t stop thinking about it. It has a totally misleading title and poster, but it’s not a movie to be missed.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is not about Satan and a headless guy playing a guitar over a crowd full of headless red people. Sorry to disappoint. But it is a documentary about the strange and brilliant life of manic-depressive singer/guitarist/songwriter/surrealist artist Daniel Johnston (he made the poster).

I’d never heard of Daniel Johnston before I saw this movie, so don’t be surprised if you haven’t either. He reached his heyday in the ’80s with his folk/rock songs that gained a devout underground following but never quite hit the mainstream. He’s not the best guitar player out there, and “rock star” might not be the first thing that comes to mind when he first shows up on screen, but the guy’s got heart and he knows how to write a song.

The thing that makes Johnston’s life worth making a movie out of, and worth watching, is that it’s as amazing as it is tragic. Born a musical and artistic prodigy, the movie plays out like the rollercoaster of his life as his genius and grasp on sanity slowly gives way to his inner demons that are beyond his ability to control.

Director Jeff Feuerzeig, who hasn’t really done anything else worth noting before or after this movie, puts the whole thing together like a scrap book of Johnston’s life. There’s interviews with his family about how he almost killed himself and his father…more than once, old recordings from a backlog of Johnston’s cassette tapes before he started distributing them to the public by hand, and what seems like every single drawing and painting that Johnston’s ever put to paper.

He does an amazing job of making the audience feel invested in Daniel’s struggles and he keeps you completely fascinated in the life of someone that you’ve never even heard of. It’s a really unique documentary both in the way it’s put together and in its subject matter, giving the audience a really up-close and personal insight to the debilitating mental illness of someone who is clearly one-of-a-kind beneath the surface.

But it’s not all sad. Daniel Johnston is still out there doing his thing and touring across the country, playing songs to sold out crowds about devil towns and The Beatles. Even if you don’t like his music, he’s got one hell of a life story.

I’ve been meaning to go out and buy this movie for a while now, and I think this review might just be the encouragement I’ve been needing. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a great documentary and it is one crazy trip.

SIDE NOTE: I’ve been listening to a Beck cover of one of Johnston’s songs like gangbusters recently. It’s called True Love Will Find You In The End. Give it a listen, it’s a great song, and I hope you dig it as much as I do.

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