The career of singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston stretches back to the Austin, Texas punk clubs of the early '80s, and throughout his two-decade residency on the fringes of American popular music, influential writers and businessmen have championed his fragile, funny songs about pop culture and self-doubt. But because he's legitimately mentally ill, Johnston has also had to suffer well-meaning fans who pressure him to be outrageous. In Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston, even the young punk who leads Johnston's current backing band insists that Johnston is a greater genius than troubled Beach Boys whiz Brian Wilson, because Johnston is crazier.
Feuerzeig has some amazing resources at his disposal, including a collection of audiocassettes and videotapes made by Johnston during his manic phases—which give a first-person account of how a sweet, seemingly harmless Austin eccentric became a cult icon with an unsettling violent streak. Feuerzeig also finds an army of Johnston's friends and peers eager to tell involved anecdotes about Johnston's romantic obsessions, bizarre art career, conservative Christian upbringing, and excessive generosity, plus the many times he went off his medication and had psychotic breaks on stage. And Feuerzeig has Johnston himself, now overweight, gray-haired, and somnambulant, living with his parents and staring into the camera with haunted eyes.
The Devil And Daniel Johnston may go on a little too long, since Feuerzeig gets most of Johnston's life story out of the way in the first two-thirds of the film. He spends the last third following Johnston now, as he struggles to get out of bed and get back to work. But toward the end, Feuerzeig shoots what may be the movie's linchpin scene, as celebrity fan Matt Groening meets Johnston backstage at a concert, and gets openly creeped-out when the usually sedate Johnston snaps to frantic life and starts pressing Groening about finding a project they can work on together. The Devil And Daniel Johnston layers multiple themes, but it returns repeatedly to the tangled relationship between hipsters and the out-of-control oddballs they enable.
The film also ponders the meaning of "genius," and whether intentionality matters when someone channels visions from a world beyond sanity. Some of the interviewees in The Devil And Daniel Johnston consider Johnston a prisoner of the mental-health industry, which keeps him doped up and creatively stifled. But Johnston's family members, whose lives he's threatened more than once, know better. By the time Feuerzeig gets to his final shot—an artful portrait of Johnston's parents, with their son looming over them like a curse—he's emerged with the most harrowing and aesthetically keen portrait of madness and artistic inspiration since Crumb.