The Devil and Entertainment

April 7, 2010 at 9:58 am

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for fans and admirers of indie music icon, Daniel Johnston. He recently commented on the documentary of his life and music, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. While I had already developed an interest in Daniel’s work and his story — which are inseparable — aside from the documentary, I had little to go on and it certainly gives you a strongly focused view of his life. Unfortunately, it may have been narrowly focused as well. The film has been criticized as being unbalanced in its portrayal of him as an always tormented, sometimes institutionalized semi-genius scratching out recordings in garages and basements while battling some pretty strong demons, namely bipolar disorder for which he was institutionalized. That’s not to say all of those things aren’t true, just that they’re not all of the truth.

If The Devil and Daniel Johnston is your only glimpse at his story, you’re likely to take away only one view of him. In hindsight it becomes a little clearer that in the film he was defined by several lapses in mental health while less interesting little details such as long stretches of productive wellness were downplayed like long straight interstate roads to more interesting breakdowns. To be fair, things like the incoherent rambling, sometimes violent outbursts and the plane crashed he caused could distract most people from music. It was a great film in many ways with a lot of tenderness and a good glimpse of his vision but you have to bring your own sense of balance to it. Be careful though, it might break your heart.

From BBC 6 Music:

“It wasn’t really fair because it really talked about the worst experiences of my life,” Johnston said. “I wish they had included more music instead of making it one of those Stranger Than Fiction shows.”

So, onto the music. Since one of his most characterizing breakdowns, he’s been hard at work — writing and releasing albums like he’s sending out pages from a journal — including one of my favorites, Fear Yourself. All of his albums are packed full of strange but endearing lyrics in that lo-fi recording so many people have come to know and love (or hate). One thing is certain — after all these years, regardless of the state of his mental health at any point, his songs are extremely exposing and honest which is refreshing among a sea of John Mayers pretending to feel something because it sells records housewives and teenaged girls.

His website refers to him as a”pilgrim of indie music with 30+ albums, hundreds of songs, and dozens of fans.” In fairness, that was written before the success of the documentary propelled him into the center stage spotlight. He’s now got countless fans, and devoted ones at that. All that notoriety and demand has led to well attended and often sold-out shows around the world and dramatically increased prices on his original artwork. This has finally allowed him to live off of his creations — products of the very mindset that have made things so difficult for him and often the people around him.

“It’s really cool that I’m making a living after all these years. I’m doing a lot better than I’ve ever done…I was starving to death working for McDonalds when I first got on MTV.”

He’s been working with a fervor but not just for its own sake or simply to meet an increased demand. Pouring his energy into creative outlets and always looking for his next opportunity appear to serve a distinct purpose in Daniel’s life. Given the limited options the world allows for someone with his extreme and changing states of mind, he may be left with little choice.

“I’d like to direct my own movies. I’m working on a film of my own and I want to direct it all myself,” he said. “[I’m planning] a variety show, with songs, videos and comedy skits all together.”
“I’ll do anything to stay out of hospitals, I spent five years in mental hospitals. All I can do is try again.”

For his latest project, Johnston released an album last week entitled Beam Me Up, consisting of three previously unreleased solo tracks and rerecorded versions of familiar Johnston originals (including Syrup of Tears, Devil Town and Walking the Cow) all backed by the eleven piece Dutch orchestra Beam. The fact that he’s released an album in march, having just released one in october speaks to his constant writing and recording. For him, it’s like breathing. I’ve heard a few short samples but have yet to get the album. So far it sounds like fans will love it and most of the rest of the world will wonder what the hell is going on and why anyone would buy it, which is something I’ve always liked about his music. It’s certainly not aimed at appealing to the broader tastes.

As if that wasn’t enough, filmmaker David Miller is working on a movie, an “epic superhero story,” about Daniel johnston — and the role of our hero may be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the few current actors worthy of the  praise he gets with his wide ranging roles as an indie/offbeat actor. From The Guardian:

“It doesn’t really cover any of the same stuff as The Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary,” …. The director, who is in the midst of pre-production, finishing the screenplay and approaching possible actors, added: “There’s so many people reaching out that are huge Daniel Johnston fans. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly for example. Johnny Depp’s a big Daniel Johnston fan, though we’d like him to play the older brother.”

I’m curious to see what it does cover. Yes, his life is full of stories worth telling but they are not all about missteps and failures and they’re not all about his mental health, whatever that means. Maybe this one will tell his story with a little more of the fairness he might hope for. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see Daniel Johnston portrayed in a hero’s light. As anyone familiar with his life and work knows, Daniel Johnston loves a hero.


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