The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)


If Daniel Johnston is going to hell, he’s going there with a smile on his face.

Daniel Johnston is one of those rare talents that comes around every once and awhile that so many people seem to love, hail as a genuis, and consider an icon among the cults, but never hit it as big as he should have. Whether or not you agree with everything that was just said there, doesn’t matter because this is the story of his beginning to present day, where it’s a wild ride of drugs, acoustic guitars, manic-depression, hanging out with Sonic Youth, scamming your way onto MTV, and singing about Casper the Friendly Ghost. Trust me, this is not going to make any sense and probably seem a lot stranger than you’d imagine, I warn you on that.

I’ve always known and listened to Daniel Johnston and although I’ve never really considered him an honest genuis, I’ve always thought that there was something unique, raw, and different to him that set him apart from the rest of the lo-fi crap that I hear and seems to try too hard. Maybe, just maybe, at the time that his stuff was being released, he was a bit too over-hyped because he was so different at the time, but nonetheless, the guy’s still an original that deserves to be heard, in order to be believed. Can’t say that about many musicial-artists nowadays, which is why it is such a work of beauty to see a documentary that shows a glimpse inside the mind of who some say is a genuis, whereas others just think he’s a total nut. By the end of it all, you’ll be able to make-up your own opinion as to what side you reside on. I’m still somewhere in the middle.

What makes this movie so damn interesting from the beginning is the fact that Daniel Johnston himself is a very original, and interesting person to cover that every single story of his, seems like it could be made into a whole other movie and is almost too good to be true but here’s the weird part: it’s all real and not only do they have people to testify to it, but they have actual audio-tape as well. When we see his up-bringings as a kid of a very religious family, we see how much of a ruckus he caused by filming and recording everything around him, as if he was making snippets of his life for a possible-documentary in the near-future. Then, as time goes on, we start to see his creative genius really start to blossom into making him an underground sensation that we hear about more than ever nowadays, but there’s always the bad side to every great and wonderful story.

"Buy my tape, or I'll fucking kill you."
“Buy my tape, or I’ll fucking kill you.”

At some parts during this movie, yes, it does feel like a bit like a Behind the Music episode, but the fact that it’s Daniel Johnston that they’re covering here, is what really seperates it from being just like that. Throughout the whole movie, you are constantly taking on these wild rides of adventures that you’d never expect to happen, but because it’s Daniel Johnston and this all happened, you can’t help but be fascinated by what you hear and see actually occur. All of his music aside, the guy has had a pretty extraordinary life, and despite what the others around him may say, he never seemed to waste a minute of it.

Take for instance that he suffers a nervous breakdown that’s so bad and so insane, that he actually gets the cops called on him at his own Christmas party. Doesn’t sound so bad, okay? Well, then take the fact that he not only tried to kill his dad once, but twice? Still nothing? Okay, how about the reality that the guy actually went into a woman’s house, charged at her for no reason other than the fact that he thought she was a Satan-worshipperer, and made her jump out of a second-story window? I could go on and on and on, but trust me, there’s more insane stories you’ll find out here and it’s all done in a sincere, believable way that only adds more to the legend of Daniel Johnston and all of the crazy shit he’s been through, as well as the crazy shit he’s put everybody around him through.

Still, no matter what, the movie never makes a mockery out of the guy and still shows how he is regarded as a genius in terms of being a musician and an artist. The guy’s got some strange songs, but you ain’t seen nothing yet until you’ve seen his art work. It definitely isn’t the most normal pieces of beauty you’ve ever seen in your life, but they are still intruiging and give you a larger-view of how this guy sees the world and makes sense out of it. Does it always seem like he’s rational? Hell no! Actually, I’d say that abvout 95% of this movie is dedicated to him just being irrational and insane, but those moments that show the inner-beauty of this person and artist, really makes the trip worth while and one you won’t soon forget.

Yes Daniel, you did get THAT big.
Yes Daniel, you did get THAT big.

But if there is anything that I can recommend this movie for enough, is that it actually makes you want to listen to this guy’s music and see what all of the fuss was, and still is about, with this guy and all of the back-stage hysteria he caused. I was already a bit spoiled before seeing this flick since I’ve heard his music and actually appreciated it, but not like I appreciated it here. This movie gave me a larger look at the man, the myth, the legend, and the music that the legend made, and how it changed so many people’s lives and made them see the world through his eyes. Not many artists nowadays give you that experience (except for the Beebs), and it’s so rich and so powerful to feel that once again, regardless of if you’re a music fan or not. Most of you out there may have never, ever for a second heard of this guy or want nothing to do with him, or hear his story told through all of it’s ups-and-downs (and trust me, there are plenty), but give this one a shot and see if you can see differently. Can’t promise your life will forever change, but it may just see things a tad bit differently. Maybe.

Consensus: Whether or not you think that Daniel Johnston is a genuis or not, is totally irrelevant. What does matter is that you are able to see the world through his eyes, become interested by his story, and how he was able to put a voice and a sound to his name, all by himself and never letting anybody take over. The guy may be really crazy, but he’s an interesting fella that I won’t soon forget. Nor the stories about him.

8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!

Buy the new, Daniel Johnston album t-shirt, free with every purchase of manic depression and public freak-outs. Buy now, or never.
For a limited-time, you can receive the Daniel Johnston album t-shirt, free with every purchase of manic depression and public freak-outs. Buy now, or never.
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7 comments

  1. Great review. I must seen this, I love Daniel Johnston’s music. The film sounds like it’d be a real insight into him as a character. Excellent write-up, and nice to see Daniel Johnston getting some attention 🙂

  2. I think you do a great job in summing up this movie and the work of Daniel Johnston. While I also don’t see the genius in his music or his art, the telling of his heartbreaking his story is pretty remarkable and definitely worth a look!.

  3. I’ve listened to Johnston quite a bit in the past but wouldn’t call myself a fan. I enjoyed this documentary when I saw it though, truly heartbreaking in places. It’s a really well made film.

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