Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Chasing Demons: The Life and Art of Daniel Johnston

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday April 07, 2006

All too often, films about the mentally ill descend into preciousness, romanticizing the drama and pain of madness. But The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a fascinating documentary opening today (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas, does not fall into this trap. 

For this is not the story of a mentally ill man who happens to be talented, but rather the story of a great artist and the trials he faces in pursuit of his art—the most significant among them being manic depression. 

Daniel Johnston may be the best living artist you’ve never heard of. At one point the film places him alongside Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Lord Byron. This may seem like hyperbole, but the comparison is appropriate; Johnston is truly a unique artist. 

Yet the word “artist” does not accurately convey his talents, for Johnston is more than that. He is a fine artist, a cartoonist, a filmmaker and a singer/songwriter. And he excels in each field.  

Johnston’s journey from suburban Boy Scout to cult legend has all the trappings of folk music mythology. Like the story about Robert Johnson making a deal with the devil at the crossroads, his life is full of archetypal imagery: devils and demons, divine revelations, wayward road trips, traveling carnivals, mental breakdowns, plane crashes, a “lost year,” falls from grace followed by triumphant resurrections. Johnston’s odyssey zigs and zags through wellness and illness, through the South, the Midwest and New York City, through folk music, MTV and early ’90s grunge rock. 

His story is one of salvation through art. He believes he has lost his soul to the devil in pursuit of fame; he believes that he is damned, yet is actively and forever seeking redemption. Though the man has clearly been through hell in his lifetime, his current state is more or less a season in Purgatory as he continually tries to purge his demons. 

“True love will find you in the end,” he sings, and he is singing of the love of God as much as love of woman. 

Earthly love, however, is also a major theme, specifically his desire for Laurie, the unrequited love of his life whom Johnston met in college. She became his muse, the Beatrice to his Dante, “the inspiration for a thousand songs.” Her image is his guiding light, a symbol of youth and beauty with whom he hopes to one day be reunited.  

In 1985, a 22-year-old Johnston arrived in Austin, Texas, where the critics and musicians in the city’s burgeoning folk scene were stunned by the brilliance of the music pouring forth from this strange kid. Word spread and soon Johnston became something of a local celebrity. When MTV came to town to document the local music scene, Johnston wormed his way before the cameras, thereby planting the seeds for a nationwide cult following. He went on to win several Austin Music Awards, including best songwriter and best folk artist, beating such soon-to-be-famous musicians as Nanci Griffith, Timbuk 3 and the Lounge Lizards.  

A breakdown followed soon after, but he made a triumphant return to Austin a few years later. And that in turn was followed by tragedy. There seems to be something in him that won’t allow him to enjoy success, as if deep down he knows that salvation requires greater suffering. And if that anguish isn’t forthcoming, he’ll create some of his own. 

Johnston’s music is haunting. He has recorded 20 albums worth of stripped-down, no-frills songs and the film captures the context and drama of their creation. They are poignant and unadorned, their spareness allowing the listener to imagine the instrumentation and full production that might have accompanied them had Johnston had the means or ability to complete his vision. Though he can’t exactly sing and his guitar skills are rudimentary at best, he has a talent for piano and is a gifted and poetic lyricist, with an ear for melody and phrasing. His songs are powerful and his performances in the film are heartrending and raw. Much of his music is a lo-fi melding of blues and folk turned inside out. He was a quirky, geeky, white-boy deconstructionist before Beck even hit puberty. He has a knack for cleverly turned phrases and honest, soul-baring simplicity. 

The film effectively demonstrates that the power of Johnston’s art is in its immediacy. Every drawing and every song is a sort of exorcism, a method by which he continually divests himself of the tumult in his mind and heart. The creations themselves are not so important to him; he churns them out at an astonishing rate. He does not dwell on them; they are too many in number. Once the exorcism is complete, he is on to the next one. This is his most effective therapy. It is as if each day brings new demons that must be put down before dusk. “Do yourself a favor,” he sings, “become your own savior/And don’t let the sun go down on your grievances.” 

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is both inspiring and heartbreaking, a stylish yet simple and effective portrait of an extraordinary artist. The film leaves us with an image of Daniel and his parents in front of their current home in Waller, Texas. His parents are elderly and will not be able to support their son much longer. Though this seems to be a somewhat peaceful period in his life, it is clear that another life-altering change is just around the corner. One gets the feeling that the trials and tribulations of Daniel Johnston are hardly in the past. His most difficult years may still lay ahead. 


The Devil and Daniel Johnston 

Written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. 

Featuring Daniel Johnston, Bill Johnston, Marta Johnston, Louis Black, Jeff Tartakov, David Thornberry, Kathy McCarty 


Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics 

Daniel Johnston has achieved a cult-figure status as an artist and singer/songwriter.›