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THE DEVIL GOES DOWN TO TEXAS

The documented dreams of Austin’s Daniel Johnston.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig


In this documentary, the main character, a mentally ill singer-songwriter and artist, diagnoses himself as a “manic depressive with grand illusions.” That’s not just an astute self-critique, it’s also a good thumbnail description of filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig’s approach to this biography, which doesn’t shy away from either depression or grand illusions.

Johnston is the gifted cartoonist and songwriter who came up through Austin’s folk-rock scene, became a regional sensation, briefly flirted with national fame thanks to an MTV appearance, then disintegrated because of schizophrenia and depression—made worse by assorted drugs. (His cartoons are also included in this year’s Whitney Biennial). 

It was a long, agonizing fall. When the story begins in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Johnston is a goofy, ambitious kid from a middle-class Virginia household that a friend described as a Christian fundamentalist version of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. By the end, he’s a ranting, drug-addled, violent and often homeless shadow of himself, wandering from neighborhood to neighborhood and city-to-city, eluding the very friends and colleagues whose only wish is to protect his life and promote his talent. (One of the film’s weirdest, funniest moments is the revelation that in the mid-’80s, Johnston was released from Bellevue mental hospital and went straight to a gig at CBGB’s.) 

If you don’t know every detail of this story going in—which I didn’t—you have a feeling things are going to end on an up note, because why else would a movie like this get distribution? But if the arc is inevitable, the path is usually surprising. Like its subject, The Devil and Daniel Johnston never says or does quite what you expect.

What makes the documentary so striking—what elevates it above most biographies of artists, sane or not—is its willingness to engage with Johnston head-on; it tries to visualize the world through Johnston’s consciousness. Bending the very structure of the film to reflect Johnston’s worldview—which was fractured over time by schizophrenia and assorted drugs—The Devil feels like something a brilliant schizophrenic might produce during a rare period of clarity. 

Johnston’s signature image, a bloody eyeball pulled free of its socket, describes the filmmaker’s aesthetic: a hellishly funny vision, unmoored from reason’s shell. 

Feuerzeig, a music-video veteran, mixes the traditional elements you expect from a film like this—Super 8mm and home movies, talking head interviews, footage of Johnston performing in Austin and New York—and some heightened, gorgeous compositions and camera movies that you don’t expect to see outside of a fictional drama. 

Feuerzeig and his cinematographer, Fortunato Procopio, capture significant locations in ways that suggest Johnston himself might be remembering them or dreaming them: gliding toward a mental hospital from an ominous low angle; communicating Johnston’s stage fright by placing the camera behind a microphone in an empty club, then fading the club to black so that only mike remains; zooming slowly away from a pile of Johnston’s audio cassettes to reveal that they’re piled in a valentine shape on top of a lush red carpet (a shot which, at its endpoint, looks very much like one of Johnston’s cartoon illustrations).

This is not a “documentary” in the strict academic sense, but a true nonfiction film, a movie that tries to do with sound and image what journalists like Nick Tosches (Dino) and Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night) tried to do with prose, bending prose into poetry to find a more subjective route to truth.  At times it reminded me of a more controlled and less expansive cousin of movies by Errol Morris (Fog of War, Fast, Cheap and Out Control). 

The result is not as philosophical as Morris’ movies and certainly not as wide-ranging and penetrating. At times Feuerzeig and his subjects tend to over hype their subject who—brilliant songwriting and cartooning aside—never really learned how to play the piano or guitar at a professional level, and alternated profundity and banality in his lyrics (“Don’t play cards with Satan/He’ll deal you an awful hand”). When a collaborator describes Johnston as a greater artist than Brian Wilson, and when Johnston’s ex-manager says that his early work “goes way beyond Dylan’s basement tapes,” collective audience eye-rolling may ensue. 

But despite this tendency to hype where hype isn’t needed, The Devil still manages to instruct, amaze and delight. To watch this film is to realize that in documentaries, as in fiction films, there’s no right way to tell a story, there is only what works. The Devil works. It makes strange, lovely music. 

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INDIE CRED:?Rule #1, it helps being mentally unstable if you want to make it in music or art (for further reference, see Daniel Johnston).
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