Essential: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

by Chris Hatch

When Daniel Johnston passed away in late 2019, his death created a ripple through the fringes of the art world. His light was one that skipped over the mainstream, and instead shone into the deep recesses and shadowy corners of the more leftfield, avant garde community. His loss most deeply felt by those who felt he was one of them – an outsider

Released in 2005, The Devil & Daniel Johnston came at a time when Johnston’s already stuttering career was coming to a halt. Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary covers Johnston’s creative journey from his exuberant youth, through to his agonisingly painful later years. Over 110 emotionally-draining minutes, Feuerzeig drags us from pillar to post as we try to keep up with Johnston’s joyful naivety, boundless enthusiasm, and debilitating obsession.

It’s this obsession that is the ultimate driving force of both the film and Johnston’s career as a whole. His musical and artistic journey seeded by an infatuation with art school classmate, Laurie Allen. In the early part of the film, the floppy-fringed Johnston comes across every bit the hapless, hopeful, kind-hearted soul. But this unrequited love is something that Johnston can’t shake -becoming the catalyst for a lifetime of mental anguish.

Johnston’s home-recorded, piano-led love songs, are almost solely written for or about his muse. These songs were compiled into collections – taped cassettes that grew and subtly changed depending on his mood; his rudimentary equipment meaning that each copy of the album had to be recorded again, live, from scratch in his basement. He gave these tapes to anyone – friends, classmates, colleagues, strangers – such was his eagerness for people to hear his work. The quality of both the songwriting and fidelity of these early tapes wasn’t always consistent, but in amongst the rubble were some jagged, dust-covered chunks of gold. Fame, money, and sell-out shows were as far from Johnston’s mind as possible, which gave his songs a unique, almost childlike feel.

During the 90s, Johnston’s work took on a cult-like status. His voice, which could be delicate, fragile, raspy and playful, was unlike anything else, and the albums and songs he recorded would go on to be regarded as laying the foundations for what we now know as lo-fi. He began to be name-checked by various musicians and bands (Kurt Cobain started to wear a Hi How Are You? t-shirt), and his output became somewhat mythologised. It was at this point that things started to really gather a head of steam for Johnston – commercially, artistically, and emotionally.

As word spread of Johnston’s recordings, so too did the intensity of his work rate and obsession. There are glimpses of his mental health issues from the very early footage of him, but as the film progresses, the extent at which his bipolar disorder affects his life becomes more and more apparent. This cocktail of obsession, hard work, and emotional struggle comes to a head at the midway part of the film when Johnston heartbreakingly tries to keep it together at a live show. As he breaks down in tears, you can’t help but feel uncomfortable, and, as the scene unfolds, the sense of invasiveness grows too. There’s a feeling that you want to travel through time and space and magically remove Johnston from the situation. It’s a scene that forces you to wonder if the people surrounding Johnston weren’t at least a little bit responsible for his mental health; as much as writing and playing his songs offered him catharsis, his issues were so deeply ingrained and severe, that only some form of serious medical help could’ve surely eased his pain. By the film’s conclusion, Johnston’s bipolar has sadly worsened. He’s drained, and at the point when he is most revered, he looks defeated.

When people talk about the fidelity of Johnston’s recordings, the quality of his voice, or the consistency of his work, they completely miss the point. It’s simply not what endeared him to so many. Instead, it was his agenda-less innocence, his kindness, and (to use a ham-fisted word) his realness that drew people towards him. His peak years of stardom, if you could loosely call it that, came at a time when the music industry was awash with soulless, profit-driven, one hit wonders. Music was becoming a commodity, but Johnston transcended all of that and instead created what could arguably be one of the most authentic bodies of work there’ll ever be. It’s just a shame that for people to enjoy his frayed, genuine songs, he had to endure years of darkness.

It feels right to end this retrospective with a story from the film. Early on, when handing out one of his many batches of tapes, Johnston managed to find his way to Louis Black at the Austin Chronicle.

On handing the tape over, the reporter said, ‘Great, I’ll give it to a music person; we might review it, but I’m not promising anything.’

‘Oh,’ Johnston replied, ‘Well, this isn’t actually for you to review,’ he continued, ‘This is a gift for you.’

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