Sunday, March 30, 2008

Danial Johnston, and his movie.

I finally got the chance to watch The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006), a documentary film directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. I had been intrigued by this story of a mentally ill man who wants to find fame as a singer-songwriter. In fact I'm generally interested in psychological portraits of artists who fight against convention to express themselves. Daniel Johnston fits that profile. He struggled with a bipolar disorder for decades. Still he believed that one day he would be famous, like his idol John Lennon. He used film, songs, and drawings to document his daily life. He recorded his raw, warbly, voice and simple guitar-playing on cassette tapes, and distributed them to everyone he met. Eventually people began to take notice. Musicians like Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Yo La Tengo, Beck, and The Flaming Lips became fans of his work.

Daniel Johnston grew up in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. He was the youngest of four children born to a pair of Christian Fundamentalist parents. From the very start his parents realized that he was different. He had a hard time controlling his impulses, and he liked to spend all of his time in the basement playing a rickety piano and creating line drawings. Sometimes he would enlist his brother's aid in making home movies. But he mostly kept to himself, articulating his dreams. Upon graduating high school he briefly attended Abilene Christian University, and later transferred to a branch of Kent State University in Ohio. It was during those years that his bipolar disorder began to manifest itself in serious ways.

While at Kent State, Johnston met what would turn out to be "the love of his life". Although they never even established a romantic relationship, the troubled young man became entirely obsessed with a girl named Laurie Allen. Through the years he would write hundreds of songs about her, claiming that she was his one and only muse. At the same time he was having a lot of difficulty living with his parents, and his siblings in Texas eventually invited him to live with them. It was upon his move to Austin that things began to develop for him. Johnston worked at McDonald's and in his off-hours began to establish himself as a bit of a local celebrity. His big break happened when MTV came to town, and he managed to worm his way into their programming.

As his exposure grew, and his music began to make its way into the hands of musicians and recording industry professionals, Johnston's behavior became increasingly erratic. He began to take LSD. His hallucinogenic drug use combined destructively with his millenarian biblical views to produce severe delusions. He began to act out in strange and maladaptive ways. His condition deteriorated until he ultimately tried to bring down a plane in which his father was attempting to fly him home. Although both Johnston and his father survived the crash landing, this stunt landed Daniel in a mental institution. Incredibly, he had become such a legend in the music underground that major record labels were offering him lucrative contracts while he was under commitment.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston brings us up-to-date with its subject's life. Johnston lives in Texas with his aging parents, in a home adjacent to their own. Although he seems relatively stable (thanks to a comprehensive regimen of modern medication), he is in need of support and care. He still records and performs music, and is assisted on the business end by his father. Tastes are different from the 90's, and there isn't such an appetite for quirky and raw fragility in the guise of indie pop-folk. While Johnston still has his following, he increasingly becomes a novelty act. I'm convinced that people go out to see him for his legend, rather than his actual creative output. He's even gotten his drawings into the Whitney Biennial, which pretty much guarantees that he is past his artistic zenith. But he is still a curiosity, and for those that are unfamiliar with him, the documentary is quite amusing.

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