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The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), Jeff Feuerzeig, A

Jordan | Jordan Hoffman's Movie Journal | Thursday, March 22nd, 2007


My own relationship with Daniel Johnston goes back, as so much of my musical development does, to Vin Scelsa’s radio show. Now — unless I’m misremembering this — Vin played one of Johnston’s 1990 call-ins to free form (then) college station WFMU on his own late night show on K-Rock. (That shows you the kind of show Vin had at the time — playing tapes of other stations!!) Later, when Johnston became a little bit cool (Kurt Cobain wearing his shirt, K. McCarty’s brilliant album of covers) I was like, “I think I kinda heard of this guy.” A little while later I became a little bit obssessed. I still own five of his albums (many will argue that one more than does the trick) and I was one of those screwballs convinced that Johnston was one of the greatest songwriters on earth, lo-fi and all.

The documentary, recently released on DVD, is fabulous. It’s difficult to pull off a screwy-artist doc in a post-Crumb world, but Feuerzeig is a very clever and original director. There are neat visual tricks (Johnston is as accomplished a visual artist as musician) and interesting storytelling devices. If you’ve never heard or heard of Johnston, you’ll enjoy the film just as much. I only had two complaints: one, we don’t hear that much of Johnston’s music in full til towards the end. His vocal style is something of an acquired taste, so I worry that some may not quite “get him” at first and get annoyed at how many people are calling him a genius. Furthermore, why not include some of the great covers of his songs by some of the more user-friendly bands? Or present some of his songs “anew” by a Greek Chorus-like house band sprinkled throughout the film. I can’t imagine Yo La Tengo would say “no” to such a request. Bad idea not to include this.

Also, why no mention of his meeting and affiliation with Roky Erickson? Would seem like an important plot point to me — but maybe he didn’t want to be interviewed.

Anyway, a fascinating story (a lot I didn’t know, and I thought I knew it all) and quite touching.

Incidentally, I’ve been to Austin a few times — turns out I’ve been to the very mall where the McDonald’s Johnston used to work in used to be! Who knew?

The DVD is chock-a-block with extras (haven’t watched the commentary track yet) including lots of Daniel’s old Super 8 films. I knew there would be, which is why I waited til DVD to see this.

Why do I like Daniel Johnston so much?

He represents a time (late 80s into mid 90s) where homegrown lo-fi artists went as far as they would go without the computer. He represents the zine. He cuts and pastes, he doesn’t photoshop. He makes audiocassettes, he doesn’t blog. He makes films, not videos. He goes to record shops, doesn’t email MP3s. It was harder to be creative then, I think, and this aesthetic is nearly completely gone today. Shame shame shame.

Watch the movie and see what I am talking about.



  1. Wow! quiet a touching review Jordan. I’ve been reading your blog for quiet some time and never thought to comment before (even though I’ve disgareed with you many times :-) ). I cannot wait to see this now. I’ll have to move it up my Netflix queue….I think it is number 50 or so now.

    Comment by ewn — March 23, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  2. Until this film I have never heard of the guy.. it was an eye opener to everything my friends and I were doing in the early Eighties when we were kids. Making audio cassette music, movies and displaying the innocence of the pre-digital world…alas, we all grew up and left it behind. It’s something of a romantic notion to know someone did something with it and changed the world a little. A funny thing I noticed is I was at the art show in Los Angeles and had arrived there just after he left….

    Comment by Ralph Pulner — March 27, 2007 @ 12:23 am

  3. [...] I hate to be mean — ’cause Nathaniel Kahn seems like a nice guy and I know this is his life I’m talking about — but what self-indulgent, boring crap! It is especially painful having just seen the brilliant Daniel Johnston documentary. You can’t just say “Oh! Dysfunctional family and (somewhat) famous guy! Let’s shoot!” No. You need to have something to say. . .or at least a better hook. ‘Cause there are movies out there like “Capturing the Friedmans” that are going to out-weird you, or movies like “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” where the man at the center just. . .does more! Sure, a couple of shots of Louis Kahn’s buildings with some tempestuous orchestral music. . .it looks great in the trailer. . .but what about the other 118 minutes? [...]

    Pingback by Jordan Hoffman Dot Com » My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003), Nathaniel Kahn, D — April 16, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  4. really great movie.
    both sad and utterly inspiring

    thanks for the recomendation

    i love ‘walking the cow’

    Comment by Tim L — June 23, 2007 @ 1:16 pm

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