I remember the first time I heard a dub of a dub of a Daniel Johnston cassette. I was working at Film Arts Foundation and walked into the equipment rental room as organ music droned over the makeshift sound system. All of the sudden, a desperate man screamed, "Satan! Satan!" It was the sound of real fear. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing. For a moment the casual air was sliced through with an otherworldly desperation that not even the most jaded young hipster could ignore. It made the hair on the back of my neck bristle. Listening to that Daniel Johnston tape was like eavesdropping on the life of a man pursued.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston tells the story of artist-musician Johnston's struggle with his own genius. It is a swirl of images culled from decades of the man's prodigious output. It seems that art lives inside Johnston and is rushing to escape his body. He is like an electrical appliance plugged into too much voltage, overheating and blowing circuits, worse for the wear.
A mad rush of creativity, the film is a frenetic collage of drawings and songs, home movies and cassette-taped ramblings. A vivid portrait of the almost-outsider artist (whose music has been an in-crowd mainstay for decades), the film tracks Johnston's creative life from junior high to the present, chronicling his rise as a cult phenomenon and his equally dramatic bouts with manic-depressive psychosis. It mirrors its subject in texture and feeling, the tone swinging maniacally from joy and elation to deep fear and depression.
Early on, Daniel struggles with his family. His creative output is so voluminous, so manic that it disturbs the peace and crowds his family out of their own suburban home. Daniel is passed from family member to family member as his parents and siblings try to cope with his fragile mental state. Living in his brother's garage in Texas, Johnston acquires two cassette tape recorders, a microphone and a keyboard and begins producing the tapes that will make him a legend, Hi, How Are You?, Yip/Jump Music and Some Songs of Pain among them.
In the mid-1980s, Johnston ends up in Austin, TX (after running away with a traveling carnival and sustaining a head injury), just as the music scene is taking off. He proceeds to ingratiate himself with the locals, handing out homemade copies of his cassettes. Somehow, he ends up performing on MTV's The Cutting Edge and turns in one of that show's most memorable performances. In 1986, Johnston is named Austin's Songwriter of the Year and Best Folk Act. Of course, the high points are followed by very dark lows. Johnston spends his life in and out of trouble, in and out of mental hospitals, pursued by Satan and pulled too often into his own personal hallucination of hell.
Kathy McCarty, who met Daniel right after he arrived in Austin and gave him his first gig opening for her band Glass Eye, says, "In Daniel's life, everywhere he's gone, he leaves this incredible wake behind of creation and destruction. He's done all kinds of things, both bad and good, but they're all mythic. They're all barely believable, yet they're all true. And the kinds of things he's done in his career are the kinds of things that someone would only do if they were so self-sabotaging that it was completely mystifying. But in terms of creating a legend, he's done everything right."
Daniel Johnston has recorded miles of tape, both talking and singing, and created thousands of cartoon drawings. The filmmaker uses these materials to piece together a film that feels like a self-portrait of a man whose head has broken open, but whose heart remains pure.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston opens April 7, 2006.