I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.
The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.
Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.
Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.
Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.