The devil inside
A gifted artist battles the demons
of mental illness in The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston is the Brian Wilson of underground rockers who came of age before Nirvana broke. A fragile, childlike figure with a talent for writing beautiful songs, Johnston, like the pop genius of the Beach Boys, suffers from bipolar manic depression.
But the Texas-based musician emerges in Devil as much more than an obscure artist name-checked by Sonic Youth and covered by Luna and Yo La Tengo; he is a singular American artist. The film, director Jeff Feuerzeig insists correctly, “is not some hipster underground thing.”
Forty-one-year-old Feuerzeig boasts an underground-music background, having worked in college radio, contributed to indie- pop zine Chickfactor and played in a band called Kickstand. Feuerzeig’s 1993 film, Half-Japanese: The Band that Would Be King, took a look at a naive Maryland art-punk group that wanted to write the world’s most popular song. Like Half-Japanese, Devil is a portrait of a lesser-known artist with epic ambition.
Devil traces Johnston’s life from his rebellious teen years in West Virginia to the present day. Along the way, he goes to college; runs away with the circus; settles in Austin, Texas; fast-talks his way onto MTV; and visits friends Sonic Youth for a recording session in New York. In the mid-’80s, after dropping LSD, Johnston’s mental-health issues intensify, sometimes resulting in episodes of violent behavior. In 1988, he’s committed to a mental hospital. The hospitalized Johnston turns down a generous contract from Elektra, believing the label is satanic.
In his teen years, Johnston experimented with film and drawing before focusing on music. But while his Jack Kirby comic–inspired artwork might illustrate a battle between good and evil, he’s no Henry Darger. “Daniel went to art school, studied art, knew the history of art, studied Duchamp, studied Van Gogh, talked about cutting off his own ear. Daniel is the ultimate insider, in music as well as in art,” Feuerzeig says. “Just because you are mentally ill, it does not make you an outsider artist.” Today, Johnston’s work is so inside, it’s been selected for the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
Devil benefits from the fact that Johnston documented his whole life on audiocassette. His audio diaries, cassette letters to his best friend Dave Thornberry, and even recordings of his family arguments play key parts in Devil. As Feuerzeig explains, “I was able to put together this puzzle which takes you through his life journey. This is the rare chance to go on a journey of the artist. It’s a rare glimpse into madness and creativity, perhaps genius.”
It was on a boom box in the early ’80s that Johnston began recording his songs of unrequited love, everyday experiences, comic-book heroes and battling Satan. “To me, it’s like listening to Billie Holiday’s voice, and he’s reaching for God like Coltrane on the saxophone,” Feuerzeig says.
But Devil has appeal whether the music grabs you or not. It’s also the story of a devout Christian family facing the challenges of serious mental illness. Today, Johnston lives with his parents, who manage his condition, his medication and his flourishing musical and artistic career. “Faith is what has kept them together,” says Feuerzeig, adding that the Johnstons “have a deep understanding of bipolar disorder. They’re not in denial.”
Feuerzeig has no problem comparing Johnston to great artistic innovators like Bob Dylan or Jackson Pollock. “Daniel has subverted what music is supposed to sound like and what art is supposed to look like. Daniel has subverted everybody.”
The Devil and Daniel Johnston battle each other in theaters starting Friday 14.