Jeff Feuerzeig won a well-deserved docu director nod at Sundance for “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” his long-in-making portrait of the titular indie-rock cult figure. Subject’s mental illness and roller-coaster career would make for a fascinating story in any case, but pic is particularly well-crafted, managing to avoid the ambulance-chasing tenor that might easily have turned this into a voyeuristic freakshow. Prospects are good for limited theatrical play, though if disappointing returns for last year’s not-dissimilar, equally fine “DiG!” are any indication, arthouse performance will likely be outpaced by longer-term home-format popularity.
Starting with a startling cut from rail-thin 1985 Johnson performing in Austin to his graying, chunky 2000 self, pic traces the saga of Johnston’s troubled life. Born to a conservative Christian family in New Cumberland, Virginia, Daniel was an art prodigy who seemed well-adjusted enough until his teens, when he began to become difficult, according to mom, (who was often painted as a domestic tyrant in Johnson’s antic, imaginative 8mm films).
After high school he refused to get a job, preferring to spend hours holed up with his drawings and the comic books that inspired them, as well as the piano on which he composed his first songs. Experiencing odd physical symptoms of distress, he dropped out of college, though not before meeting the fellow student (Laurie Allen) who would fuel his lovesick art — though they never even dated.
Bounced around from his parents’ home to those of his siblings in the hopes he’d find adult footing, Johnston wound up in Austin, where he cleaned tables at MacDonald’s while relentlessly self-promoting his musical endeavors. The yelp-voiced, crudely played, nakedly emotional and/or childishly silly songs on his homemade cassette tapes soon gained him live gigs. He even managed to push his way onto an MTV special about Austin’s percolating late-’80s rock scene.
But his obvious instability developed into something more hazardous after an ill-advised period of LSD tripping. In and out of mental hospitals (where he was diagnosed as manic-depressive), he became obsessed with a notion of Satanic conspiracies. His star continued to rise in the indie-rock world, attracting such influential fans as Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain and Jad Fair (whose unit Half-Japanese was the subject of director Feuerzeig’s prior docu feature “The Band That Would Be King”). Johnston entertained major-label contract bids while hospitalized.
Still harboring delusions of world pop supremacy, Johnston is now somewhat stable, and has a real backup band. Even so, he again lives at home with elderly parents whose retirement he’s rendered high-stress, and who worry how he’ll survive once they’ve passed on.
Feature has a little trouble finding an ending, with late, gratuitous sequence showing Daniel meeting “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. But otherwise, pic is a sharp mixture of archival material, interviews, and colorful items including one brief animated sequence.
Only notable omission — albeit a serious one — is pic’s decision to exclude any comment from those many critics who frown on Johnston’s fandom as merely cruel, and getting laughs at the expense of a handicapped person. Interviews of fans claiming Johnston is a greater genius than Bob Dylan register as contrarian posturing. Songs like “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Frito Lay” and “Don’t Play Cards With Satan” have the naive charm of folk art, but are not the stuff of artistic immortality.
Tech and design aspects are all very well-turned.