“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” – A Review

Enjoying its Southeast Premiere at the Florida Film Festival and arriving soon at a theater near you, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is a moving study of a singer-songwriter-musician-illustrator-artist who almost loses his career — and indeed his very life — because of manic depression. Director Jeff Feuerzeig’s sensitive documentary explores Johnston’s early years with his fundamentalist Christian family through his later years as a psychotic singing storyteller hell-bent on casting out the devil in his many disguises.

A Sony Pictures Classics Release, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” reveals the artist’s many sides: impetuous youth running off to join the carnival; independent filmmaker yearning to be a star, director, producer, and distributor; historian responsible for recording audiotapes of his childhood; visual artist documenting his thoughts and feelings into comic book-style drawings; idealistic performer hoping to be the next John Lennon; folk singer obsessed with heartfelt lyrics about his first-love; and psychiatric patient taking his meds, receiving his therapy, and dreaming of release.

Johnston’s parents and friends provide a loving — though unflinching — look at the man through in-depth interviews with the filmmaker. Working behind the scenes with Feuerzeig are producer Henry S. Rosenthal, director of photography Fortunato Procopio, editor Tyler Hubby, and executive producer Ted Hope.

The film blends vintage performances, current footage, grainy home movies, photographs, drawings, and recorded audiotapes to present a layered look into Johnston’s personal history. His artwork, rooted deep in his childhood pain, has been displayed in galleries and museums around the world, and his music has attracted an international cult audience including Matt Groening, Sonic Youth, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Beck. Even so, Johnston’s mental illness has prevented him from achieving the level of fame he always desired.

In addition to the compelling tale of a man and his inner demons, Feuerzeig addresses other issues, which wreak havoc throughout Johnston’s life, and also are mirrored throughout our society. Does the artist walk alone? What is the link between creativity and madness? Does art inspire beauty? Like any good documentary filmmaker, Feuerzeig doesn’t tell us what to think, but rather gives us questions to think about.

Copyright 2006 Leslie Halpern

Central Florida entertainment writer Leslie Halpern is the author of more than 1,600 articles in trade and consumer magazines. She wrote the books “Reel Romance. The Lovers’ Guide to the 100 Best Date Movies” (Taylor Trade Publishing), which reviews date movies for couples and suggests romantic ideas inspired by these films, and “Dreams on Film: The Cinematic Struggle Between Art and Science” (McFarland & Company), an analysis of representations of sleeping and dreaming in the movies. Both books are available at Amazon.com. Visit her website at: http://home.roadrunner.com/~lesliehalpern

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