'Daniel Johnston' a Devil of a Doc

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

'Daniel Johnston' a Devil of a Doc


Byline: Dann Gire

- It took Jeff Feuerzeig the better part of 20 years to produce his documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." It is a compassionate and eye-opening examination of an enigmatic songwriter, musician, performance artist, painter and cartoonist who suffers from manic depression, bouts of visions of grandeur and occasional satanic conspiracies.

Madness and creativity sometimes go hand in hand in the arts, in both the fine and performance kinds, and that theme constantly comes to the fore in Feuerzeig's exhaustively researched doc. It follows the fascinating - and for most mainstream audiences, unknown - story of Daniel Johnston, son of conservative Christian parents in Virginia.

The doc, utilizing an amazing volume of Johnston's own home movies, shows how the young artist began his obsessions with comics books, his own strange and soulful songs, and with a fellow student named Laurie Allen, who became his long-lost romantic muse (despite the fact the two never dated).

Over the years, Johnston wrote an armada of songs extolling his unrequited love for Laurie, who later married an undertaker. Johnston recorded his songs on a cheap cassette recorder in his basement, a quirky attribute that only boosted his status as an outsider artist.

The late Kurt Cobain declared Johnston the greatest living songwriter (and, while he lived, Cobain proudly wore a Johnston- designed T-shirt). "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening says Johnston's macabre comic-book-inspired artwork was an influence for him.

While "The Devil" pumps out plenty of nice things about Johnston, it's important to remember that Feuerzeig has near-to- zero interest in presenting a balanced, journalistic approach to his subject. …

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