The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Starring: Daniel Johnston
Tartan DVD
RRP: 19.99
TVD 3600
Certificate: 15
Available 21 August 2006

Often considered to be one of the finest musicians in the world, and described by Kurt Cobain as "the greatest songwriter on earth", Daniel Johnston and his work are explored in this insightful documentary which examines how mental illness has helped shape his own life and the lives of those around him...

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) looks at the life and works of the artist and singer songwriter Daniel Johnston. Written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, who had previously made music documentaries about Half Japanese and Jon Hendricks, it is a portrait of one man's battle against manic depression and the effect that it had on his work. The film won the Directors Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

If you have never heard of Daniel Johnston, then your not alone, neither had I. Musically he comes over as a young Bob Dylan with bits of Woody Guthrie and the Beatles thrown in for good measure. The film portrays Daniel as a tortured genius; however, non fans of Daniel's music will most probably contest this. Whilst, it has a certain raw charm, mostly because the recordings are straight to cassette tape (ask your parents) with Daniel either singing along to a guitar or organ, he is by no means the world's best singer or musician.

Not that the quality of either his original recordings or the performances on the film would do justice to anyone's talent, because they have used such raw and poorly recorded material, I think that the film actually does Daniel an injustice. I tracked down some of his original recording which were much better and gave a closer reflection of his abilities. It would have been nice to hear one of his songs presented with good production values.

What the songs lack in technical expertise they make up with a poignant, funny and often sad look into Daniel's head. He holds nothing back in either his art or his music, as a look at the man as a whole, watching him on screen will sometimes evoke laughter but more than often tears of sorrow for a life so tragically blighted by illness.

Daniel must be a film maker's dream topic as he seems to have obsessively documented his own life through hundreds of audio cassette and film, providing a wealth of material. Some of the old footage is a little strange. Initially I thought that the shots of Daniel as a young man had, for artistic reasons, been covered with snow flakes until I listened to the commentary and discovered that it was the mould eating away at the print.

The film is riveting in much the same way a slow car crash is, as the film documents Daniel's periods of mental illness and the strain that this caused to his parents and friends. For the average watcher, some of the things which Daniel engaged in whilst ill will leave you aghast - from throwing the key to the light plane out of the window, whilst it was still in flight, to scaring an old woman so badly that she jumped out a second story window.

There is a lot of religious iconography and paranoia, which he seems to have inherited from his ultra Christian parents, which rather than comforting him seems to have become a terrifying focal point for all his fears - fears which are reflected in his music and art. To be fair to his parents they also come over as very caring and they have stuck by him his whole life, now acting as his carers even though they themselves are elderly and not in the best of health.

The disc is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 with either a stereo, 5.1 or DTS soundtrack. The extras consist of a full length commentary by the director and producer as well as cut scenes. We also get a couple of short films by Daniel and the original theatrical trailer. Under the featurettes, the film producers reunited Daniel with his long lost love from his youth, the muse for his work, Laurie, which makes for uncomfortable viewing - I felt that this was a step too far into Daniels personal life.

The film didn't have the feeling of a celebration of one man's battle against illness to achieve a remarkable body of work. I couldn't help feeling that there was a little too much voyeurism, not only in the film but in some of the performances shown. A lot of the shots show Daniel whilst he is obviously ill and few people seem to be there to help him. It is possible that Daniel could have achieved more success without his illness, though in truth he has surmounted his manic depression to achieve much more than most people. So watch the film and celebrate Daniel for what he is and what he has achieved, he is a remarkable man.

Charles Packer

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