Monday, June 12, 2006

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston is not someone I'm familiar with musically, but is instead one of those "legends" that one hears just enough about to find fascinating but not enough about to see them for what they truly are. After seeing this, though, I now see that in Johnston's case his true self and story is that of a very sick and very sad man.

I (still) can't claim to be knowledgeable about Johnston's music and I'm not sure about how such knowledge would have affected my viewing of his story, but from what little I have heard I've never been inclined to believe in his "genius," and the video and audio clips in the documentary didn't provide much in the way of enlightenment as to why everyone else does. Despite that, though, the story was an interesting, if ultimately depressing, one.

Johnston suffers from schizophrenia and, as such, is a very fragile man prone to mental breakdowns and violent outbursts. Throughout the show we see and hear (from a vast archive of audio and video that Johnston compiled of his thoughts and actions with compulsive fervor) his strangest thoughts and notions and are witness to a clearly deranged man as he rants on and on about Satan and demons and other various obsessions that have consumed him for years. His stints in mental institutions and hospitals are documented, including audio tapes sent to his manager where he professes his strange desires ranging from the Beatles reuniting and acting as his backing band to being a spokesperson for Mountain Dew. We see him perform to wild acclaim in front of thousands in Austin, TX, and to awkward silence for a small gathering of the best the New York underground had to offer in a record shop in Manhattan. We watch his parents (and his father especially) beam with pride at each of his triumphs and then break into tears describing the pain they've gone through in trying to keep Daniel safe. We see his siblings describe the emotional toil of having their own brother removed from a family gathering by the police for fear he might harm them in their sleep after having seen him break one brother's rib in a scuffle over Christmas tree decorations and his accusations that they were all Satanist.

As former "girlfriend" (they never dated, he just claimed her and she didn't want to hurt his feelings) Kathy McKarty explains, Daniel has self-sabotaged every good thing in his life, but as far as making a legend goes, he's done everything right. On one trip to New York City to record with members of Sonic Youth and Half Japanese, Johnston, fresh from a stay at the hospital, goes berserk again and wanders about the city claiming that he's on a mission from God and that all the efforts being made to send him back to his family in West Virginia were the works of Satan. It's these sort of antics that made him a legend to his fans but that have caused so much pain to his family, to those who have a real connection with him and love him as a son or brother, not as a distant figure that they only know as a child-like voice on a bootleg cassette tape, and this is what made me saddest of all. The closing scene shows Daniel with his aging parents whom Daniel completely relies on, and it makes me wonder what will become of him when all he has left are his admirers, not his loved ones.

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