Monday, June 18, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

I finally watched "The Devil And Daniel Johnston" last night, and I have to say that it deserves all the raves it's getting. It helps that Johnston seems to have recorded everything that happened to him, ever, giving the filmmakers a lot to work with. In a subtle way, the movie was something of an indictment of the way people romanticize artists with mental illness, when mental illness is mostly just a tragic waste. Indicts to a degree---more interestingly, the filmmakers allowed that Johnston's manic depression is personally hellish, but quite probably one of the factors that makes him a genius songwriter. All in all, it's hard to make a movie that's even-handed and still intriguing, and this movie is it. I particularly liked how the filmmakers were able to show Johnston's parents sympathetically without whitewashing the way their fundamentalist religious methods of bringing him up seemed to have escalated his mental problems.

This mural Johnston did is a bona fide city landmark, and the city even stepped in to protect it when the record shop it was on was bought out by a Baja Fresh. I can attest that it's something of an arresting bit of graffiti---whenever I've taken people who don't know about it down to the Drag, they usually remark upon it. It makes people happy.

If you've never heard Johnston's music, I recommend checking it out. Here's a particular favorite of mine:

"Like A Monkey"---Daniel Johnston

Frequent Pandagon commenter Kathy McCarty is interviewed extensively in the movie, and she's done an album of Johnston cover songs, with the idea being that a lot of his stuff is inaccessible because of the obtuse way he performs it and her covers might make it more accessible. Here's her lovely cover of "Walking the Cow".

"Walking the Cow"---Kathy McCarty

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At June 18, 2007 at 6:53 PM , Anonymous dc said...

There is also an excellent 2-disk set called 'Discovered/Covered' where the original versions can be heard alongside covers by Beck, Mercury Rev, Tom Waits, Vic Chesnutt and others. A great introduction to an intriguing artist.

At June 19, 2007 at 12:19 AM , Blogger Sully said...

I agree with the point about the false glorification of mentally ill artists.

When I lived in Austin, my understanding of Johnston was limited. I owned a couple tapes, and walked by the frog all the time.

But watching the doc opened up my eyes, and it truly is a sad story. The comparisons to Brian Wilson are equally depressing, when in reality he was more like Wesley Willis.

At June 19, 2007 at 5:09 AM , Blogger Amanda Marcotte said...

I think that's really unfair. Wilson may be less sick, but people really aren't kidding around when they rave about Johnston's song-writing.

At June 19, 2007 at 6:51 AM , Blogger grimsaburger said...

Amanda, my otherwise beloved spouse has been sporadically trying to push Daniel Johnston on me for years, and now here you go and take sides with him. What does a girl have to do to quit expanding her horizons!?!? Isn't it enough that I already caved for Vic Chesnutt?

(grimsaburger aka dingbat on Pandagon)

At June 19, 2007 at 8:19 AM , Blogger Sully said...

Oh, don't get me wrong. I think there's sort of a brutal honesty in his song writing that made him really appealing.

When I say like Wesley Willis, I mean it at least came across like he was patronized for his quirky history.

But I think people viewed him as part Jandek and part side show, sadly.

At June 19, 2007 at 6:38 PM , Anonymous Lauren said...

I second the Discovered/Covered album. The Calvin Johnson cover is brilliant.


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