The Devil And Daniel Johnston (John Feuerzeig). 110 minutes. Opens Friday (April 28). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Daniel Johnston is a singer-songwriter with an untrained voice and a naive lyrical gift who has spent much of his adult life struggling with mental disorders - he's bipolar and delusional.
Thus, he's irresistible to a certain brand of musical hipster who enjoys discovering unironic "raw" talents and elevating them to the status of great artists. Director John Feuerzeig is one of these people. He also did a feature-length documentary on the band Half Japanese, and seemed thrilled when someone decided to bring Johnston together with Half Japanese's Jad Fair to create a summit of musical genius.
As a piece of therapy exploitation, the extensive archival footage of Johnston and a stream of tapes he made as diaries make an intriguing clinical study. But Johnston is less interesting than those around him - like his former manager, who is so convinced of the singer's genius that he's still committed to making sure his tapes remain available, dubbing them and mailing them out of his house.
I'm open to new musical experiences, but these songs don't strike me as works of genius. Many artists have recorded Johnston's songs, but the list includes ironists like Beck and Tom Waits, so you're not sure what they were conveying in those songs.
It's interesting to examine the gap between the impression the songs make and the claims made for them and their creator. When Johnston is introduced at a performance as "the greatest living singer/songwriter," all I could think was "What? Did Springsteen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the entire Wainwright family go down in a plane crash?"