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Sony Picture Classics presents

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

"I couldn't write a song if I tried
Doo doo doo
Something inside has gone up and died. And I couldn't write a song if I tried."- Daniel Johnston

Stars: Louis Black, Bill Johnston, Daniel Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov
Other Stars: Gibby Haynes
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, language including a sexual reference
Run Time: 01h:49m:00s
Release Date: 2006-09-19
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB+B+ A+


DVD Review

Daniel Johnston can't really play guitar, and he doesn't have a great voice. Still, by managing to work his way into an appearance on MTV in the mid-1980s, he's become one of the great outsider music stars of all time. His folk rhythms and references to Captain America, lost love, and Casper the Friendly Ghost are deceptively simple, and completely unselfconscious. Director Jeff Feuerzeig's interest, though, is less with the music than the man, and the ways in which Daniel's talents have brought about a slow, but by now inevitable decline.

Though incredibly ambitious and obviously talented from a very early age, by his late teens Daniel began to show symptoms of severe manic-depression. His rise on the Austin underground music scene, followed by an impromptu MTV appearance, charts with a decline in his mental health. Drugs on the club scene only speed up the process. As suggested by Dan's loved ones, everybody has ideas about the purity of the crazy artist. Could van Gogh have produced the paintings he did without having been at least a little nuts? It's one thing, though, to harbor those romantic notions. It's quite another to be the friend, or the parent of that artist. And it's an entirely different thing to be the artist himself. Has Daniel's art slowly destroyed him, or has it been his only salvation? To put it bluntly, could you have the art without the crazy, or vice versa? There's no easy answer in Dan's story. It seems throughout the film that any road he takes leads him into darkness.

And things do get very dark for Daniel. His visions of demons and damnation lead him to chase an elderly woman out of her second story window, to attack his manager with a pipe. His father reflects, horrifically, on a plane crash that Daniel brings about. His bipolar disorder leaves him out of control and constantly on the very edge of complete self-destruction, but the meds that treat his medical problems leave him neutered creatively. As scary as Dan's destructive episodes are, he's lost without his talent for art. "I couldn't write a song if I tried," he hums, tears in his eyes, "something inside has gone up and died." It's heartbreaking. It's also the key to his appeal. His songs work because he's so present in them, with all the rawness and precariousness that that entails. His live stage performances have often led to breakdowns, but his recordings have the same fragility, and the same desperation. Though Feuerzeig occasionally gets a little overly clever (does he need to interview Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers in the middle of dental work?), his portrait makes Daniel's appeal clear. This exploration of his life took me inside of his music every bit as much.

Daniel's conservative religious parents are featured prominently here, and it's hard for them at times to disguise their lack of interest in his art, and in their preaching are the roots of his fixation with damnation. Feuerzeig, thankfully, avoids judging them. It would have been easy to dismiss them for dismissing Daniel's talent, but as his caretakers that talent has caused more pain than pride. He's not just a crazy but talented artist to them, and unlike us, there's no room for them to enjoy the music without appreciating the suffering behind it.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is a solid transfer. There's a great deal of archival and home movie footage here, but the image quality seems faithful to the film and lacks any obvious problems.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 audio track is presented well, if unexceptional. As with the video, there's a lot of old analog audio used here, and the sound quality on much of it is remarkable considering the disparate sources.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French with remote access
12 Other Trailer(s) featuring Sketches of Frank Gehry, The Italian, Riding Along For Thousands of Miles, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), The White Countess, Riding Giants, Masked and Anonymous, The Fog of War, Grateful Dawg, Marie Antoinette, The Holiday, American Hardcore
6 Deleted Scenes
3 Featurette(s)
Feature/Episode commentaries by director Jeff Feuerzeig and producer Harry S. Rosenthal
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: In the Sundance World Premiere featurette, Daniel Johnston comments to the effect that every fact of his life has now been put on screen. While the movie is exceptionally detailed, the extras take that several steps further. I'm not sure that it would be possible to document an artist's life more on a single DVD.

The material that was filmed after the making of the movie includes the aforementioned featurette, which includes the director, producer, and Daniel immediately after the Sundance screening. More interesting, and quite touching is the Laurie and Daniel Reunion featurette. Laurie Allen, Daniel's long-time muse and the subject of many, many of his songs is reunited with him after 26 years. It's a nice coda to the movie, and had me more than a little choked up.

There's an audio commentary by the director, Jeff Feuerzeig and producer Henry S. Rosenthal. It's a solid, if occasionally dry track. Their affection and admiration for Daniel comes through, and they discuss some of the film's background and choices made in production. There are also six deleted scenes with extended interviews, as well as an alternate sequence narrated by Daniel.

The best stuff here is the archival material. First is the Legendary WFMU Broadcast from 1990 with Daniel producing his own mini-radio show from his parent's bedroom. Daniel's Audio Diaries are extended or full-length versions of audio recordings featured in the film, and some that aren't. There are 13, totalling almost an hour's running time, and they're presented with a moving image of the original cassette onscreen. Since Daniel scribbled or drew pictures on most of these, that's a very cool touch. He was constantly making these tapes, and what's here runs the gamut from simple audio diary to ravings. Cinema of Daniel Johnston is a collection of six short and home movies, including a full-length version of one featured prominently in the film where Daniel plays himself as well as his mother while, rather unflatteringly, portraying their relationship.

Last, and least, the ROM features include a couple of weblinks, and there are 12 previews for upcoming and recently released films.

Extras Grade: A+

Final Comments

If you're a Daniel Johnston fan, this is a must-have. If not, this still makes for a truly exceptional music documentary with a wide range of special features that complement the main feature well. I highly recommend checking it out.

Ross Johnson 2006-09-21