Last night we went to see The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary film about the storied singer/songwriter from West Virginia. Johnston has cast a long shadow over alternative and independent music in the 20 years since his stint as a hired hand in a carnival landed him in the middle of Austin’s thriving college music scene in 1985. Many musicians and industry executives have hailed him as the greatest living songwriter, and Johnston’s mystique as a mentally ill recluse has led to comparisons with Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett.

I consider myself a fan of Daniel Johnston but, considering the cult that has grown up around him, I was a little worried that this film might overly romanticize his contributions to music. I love his self-taught, lo-fi sound and I think he has written many haunting and beautiful songs, but he’s not the greatest living songwriter by a very, very long shot. Luckily, director Jeff Feuerzeig makes very good use of Johnston’s vast archive of super-8 films and audiocasettes with which he has been documenting his own life since he was in his early teens. The result is a nuanced portrait of a talented but highly troubled artist. Present-day interviews with his parents, with whom he still lives, are unexpectedly poignant. They are fundamentalist Christians who show a sincere respect for their son’s art and a deep desire to see him become a whole and normally functioning man. The film chronicles Johnston’s violent psychotic episodes and subsesquent hospitalizations in what I thought was a very fair way. A statement by Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black summed up the conflict that many people close to Johnston felt and still feel: that you want to be the one who “understands” the tortured genius, but you end up being forced to separate yourself from that person for your own (and their) protection.

Johnston’s manic depression (which in my armchair psychoanalysis seems more like psychosis or borderline personality disorder) is evident in his tortured lyrics, surreal drawings, and sometimes incoherent and delusional rantings, but underneath it you can see a gentle and intelligent man who can only find relief from his (to him, very real) demons through his creative output. The film could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand that would have trimmed an extra 20 minutes or so, but overall it’s a worthwhile glimpse at both the man and the unique and exciting era in rock music during which he rose to fame.

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