When discussing the interaction of art and madness - especially in popular music - there are one of two extremes that one can go to. At one end are people like Brian Wilson, who eventually overcome their dark periods and are able to build upon their past successes, and are eventually seen as triumphs. (I can honestly say that if it weren't for Brian Wilson - especially during his time with Eugene Landy - I probably would never have been motivated to study psychology). At the other end are people like Wesley Willis, whose name brings up some uncomfortable questions and bring up issues of possible exploitation.
Fortunately, the makers of The Devil and Daniel Johnston have made a tight, engaging, well crafted cinematic love letter to an artist that covers all sorts of ground - art and madness, family, religion, lost love, and the hipster lifestyle. It's the kind of documentary that should be used in film classes to teach how to make an even-handed, well-balanced film...and if this movie doesn't win an Oscar, I will be convinced that there is no Higher Power.
The very first scene is Daniel filming himself, and setting the scene for the rest of the film - an examination of a man who started out as a near-genius. We see him flourishing early on, but receiving the message that he cannot earn a living through his art, but should get a "real" job. Either through luck or calculation (or even both), Johnston becomes the local darling of the Austin scene. It's during that time that things begin falling apart...or do they?
One of the great things about this movie is how the filmmakers document Johnston's descent into manic depression...well, first, they don't do the cliche of "he fell apart due to fame". Early on, the filmmakers suggest that his disorder showed up earlier in his life. In addition, they document the shocking effects that Johnston's behavior has on others - as Austin writer Louis Black states in the movie, dealing with abstract craziness is one thing; having someone you know act insanely is another. (Fortunately, Johnston documented much of his art and his life through tapes, providing excellent background and exposition). As the last third of the movie unfolds, it doesn't give us a nice, rosy picture that all is well...but it is also not a totally pessimistic ending, either. Simply put, it is a "life goes on" ending.
Also, be sure to check out several of the special features, including a reunion with a "lost love" featured prominently in the film. Although the last words he says to her might normally sound creepy, it seems more like a renewal of his dedication to his muse, a realization that now that he has more fuel for his creativity.
This movie doesn't make me want to jump out and purchase Johnston's music (not that it's bad - it just isn't my cup of tea). For the first time in a long time, however, a documentary has made me even more curious about its subject....and that's the highest compliment I can give to it.