It's Been Real
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"Listen up and I'll tell a story, about an artist growing old"¦"-Daniel Johnston, "Story of an Artist"

At one point in Jeff Feuerzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the leader of Daniel Johnston's backing band insists that Daniel Johnston is a greater genius than Brian Wilson because Johnston is crazier. While the logic in that statement is clearly flawed, it does fairly succinctly bring up one of the chief examinations of Feuerzeig's film: the relationship between genius and insanity. Does one cause the other? Is it possible to be one without being the other? And is it ok to sacrifice one's own health in the pursuit of one's art? The answers to the first two questions are obvious to anyone who isn't an idiot or being controversial. There are numerous geniuses who are not insane, and plenty of people who are bat shit crazy and not at all brilliant. The third question, though, provides some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film, and is a question that resonates for long after the credits roll.

The film follows the life and career of Daniel Johnston, an often deeply unstable manic depressive who also happens to be a musical genius, and the mind behind a large body of fragile, funny and heartbreaking songs about pop culture, love, and self-doubt. Feuerzeig has some amazing resources at his disposal, including archival footage from throughout Johnston's life, most of which was shot by Johnston himself, audio tapes of demos, of stories Johnston has told and of rants during his manic phases, and a veritable army of friends, family and supporters of Johnston willing to speak about his genius, his romantic obsessions, his art career, his Conservative Christian upbringing and the many times he has gone off his medication and done something either endearingly odd or psychotically dangerous.

The amount of archival footage and access Feuerzeig gained is impressive in and of itself, but The Devil and Daniel Johnston never aims to be a simple biography of its troubled subject. The film questions whether intentionality matters in considerations of genius, as Johnston has written many of his songs during manic periods when he would stay up writing and recording for days on end when he wasn't trying to purge demons from those around him. And eventually, as the film documents one of Johnston's many stays in a mental institution, it ponders whether Johnston's health is more important than his art (Johnston cannot work while on the drugs he is given in the institution), as many of his friends and supporters consider Johnston an unwilling prisoner of the mental health industry, a genius kept from his work by a system that wants to keep those with starkly different worldviews out of society. Some of these people make very persuasive arguments for Johnston's freedom from oppression, yet his family knows better than to see him as just someone with "different views." Having had their lives and safety threatened by Johnston on more than one occasion, they know only too well how vital his treatment and his medications are to the safety of those around Johnston, even if they do impact his work.

The final third of the film follows a modern day Johnston, overweight, somnambulant and gray-haired as he wanders his parents house (where he now lives) aimlessly and stares into the camera with haunted eyes. He struggles to get back to work and occasionally succeeds (I saw Johnston on tour a few years back in DC, and in spite of him having to stop the show a few times to quell his nerves, he put on a great show), but mainly exists as a reluctant third member of his parents' house. The film's final shot, a portrait of Johnston's parents, with their son looming behind them, specter-like and out of place, ends the film on a near-perfect note. Feuerzeig has created a harrowing and fascinating portrait of madness and artistic inspiration.
As simply a biography, The Devil and Daniel Johnston succeeds impressively, utilizing a shocking amount of archival footage and capturing the full measure of the man warts and all, yet it is the questions the film poses that leave it lingering in your mind long after it ends. The limits of genius, the challenges of insanity, and the question of where a man, and more importantly, where society should draw the line to prevent the illusion of granting a man freedom from bleeding into a reality of exploiting the mentally ill are all worth pondering. That many people I respect have come up with very different answers to that question only serves to make the film, and the questions it poses, all the more compelling.

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Coming up on It's Been Real:

4/1: Exit Through the Gift Shop

4/15: 8: The Mormon Proposition

4/29: The King of Kong

5/13: Helvetica

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