I didn’t see The Devil And Daniel Johnston when it was out at the cinema (let’s face it, I see next to nothing at the cinema, especially now that even the Curzon in Loughborough has been tarted up and renamed), so I’d been looking forward to sitting down to watch it on More4 on Wednesday night.
Johnston is a legend in American indie/lo-fi circles. He was much feted by Kurt Cobain, and US alt-rock luminaries such as Sonic Youth. The Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo have queued up to record his songs. Over here, the likes of Teenage Fanclub and The Pastels have given similar backing.
I’ve only got one of his albums, Artistic Vice, the first he recorded with a band. It’s patchy, but I defy anyone to listen to it and not come away humming at least half a dozen of the tunes. Of the odds and ends of other stuff I’ve heard, the same is true. Johnston’s playing is at best competent and his singing honest but raw, but he has undoubtedly got a knack for a great tune (albeit, often better sung by someone else). And his lyrics can seem pretty childlike and obvious, except that every now and then they unsettle or move you with a startling line, or just make you laugh with some smart wordplay. When he’s good (True Love Will Find You, for example, or the wonderful Speeding Motorcycle), he’s very good indeed.
Anyway, all you need to know about his life is here.
The question I think the film raised was whether the whole Johnston cult is in fact rather exploitative and voyeuristic, although of course in doing so it was laying itself open to the same claims.
And to be honest, by the end I was no closer to deciding whether or not this is the case. Most of the people singing his praises seemed genuinely to believe he is a genius (as an ‘outsider’ artist as well as a musician), but there was still an uncomfortable feeling that it was a case of “look at the funny man with the mental illness”. There were times when you definitely felt that being told constantly that he’s a genius (even if it’s true) has only fuelled his problems. As to whether the mental illness is actually essential to his talent – well, I don’t think this offered any great insights. An enthralling but frustrating two hours.