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The Independent Critic

Daniel Johnston
Jeff Feuerzeig
Rated PG-13
110 Mins.
Sony Classics
 "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" Review 
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Former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain once proclaimed Daniel Johnston "the greatest songwriter on Earth."

One can only assume this was during one of Cobain's intensely delusional states, as the Daniel Johnston presented in this, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," is an intriguing, captivating and, at times, inspirational human being but NOT the aforementioned "greatest songwriter on Earth."

Johnston was raised in California by religious parents, however, his odd behavior led to his being sent to live with a brother in Austin, Texas. In Austin, Johnston's tendency towards freakish art and song makes him a bit of a local celebrity and his songs end up being recorded by the likes of Beck, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and others. Just as Johnston was achieving his dream of being on MTV, he suffered a mental breakdown and, combined with cultlike obsessions, Johnston's downward spiral into manic-depression will nearly leave his career, family, friends and entire life in tatters.

Prone to visions of grandeur, Johnston becomes hailed as a brilliant singer/songwriter and folk musician in the Austin area. This proclamation, backed by an Austin area award as "Folk Singer of the Year" baffles even many of the locals, however, Johnston managed to maintain a music career even when nothing else in his life seemed to work.

It is rather ironic that Johnston worked for a carnival when he first arrived in Austin, because much of "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" feels as if we are backstage watching a sideshow freak. Writer/Director Jeff Feuerzeig presents the story of Daniel Johnston largely due to Johnston's own obsessive documenting, filming and writing of his personal experiences. Despite this inside look provided by Johnston himself, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" never feels particularly insightful or revealing.

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is more of a film for Johnston's almost cult-like admirers than it is for music fans and/or the general movie-going public. The vast majority of moviegoers are likely to hear Johnston's music and watch his many downward spirals and say to themselves "Tragic story, but who really cares?" It isn't particularly impressive to hear that Johnston landed an Atlantic recording contract when one also considers his release sold a paltry 6,300 copies. The film never makes me feel particularly sorry for Johnston, however, it also never offers any convincing evidence of his alleged brilliance.

I am reminded of another current popular singer, Macy Gray. Gray, who has experienced considerably success in popular music, has openly acknowledged her own bipolar disorder and her efforts to manage it. While Johnston has, quite clearly, had many successes, he has thrown away equally as many. While he continues to make music in the Austin area, it remains challenging to feel positive about this by the film's end since he has still clearly squandered much of his talent.

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" too often feels like the artist it is trying to portray. It is an almost manipulatively gracious film that seeks to idealize a man who continues to inspire many and confound many others.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
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