A prize-winner at Sundance in 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig’s artful documentary about the underground musican and artist Daniel Johnston offers the microscopic insight of a fan without scrimping on the wider compassion and analysis required from a decent biographer. Crucially, Feuerzeig made his film with the full participation of Johnston and many of his family, friends and collaborators – and this makes for a comprehensive, passionate work.
West Virginia-born Johnston is a troubled presence. Convinced (not unduly) of his status as an artist since he was a stubborn, precocious teenager in a ‘right-wing, Christian’ family in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he has struggled with severe manic depression all his adult life, enjoying hip ‘outsider’ status since the mid-’80s (and, between 1994 and 1996, a major record deal), not to mention two stints in psychiatric hospitals and an ongoing need for medication.
Illness aside, Johnston writes touching, pared-down love-songs, many of which are odes to his heroes: the Beatles and a lost love, former fellow art-student Laurie Allen. These songs, and Johnston’s performances of them, excited the Austin music scene in the mid-’80s (when Johnston was working at McDonald’s) and attracted fans including Kurt Cobain, who often wore a T-shirt featuring one of Johnston’s comics-inspired artworks when performing live.
A powerhouse of self-recording, Johnston himself supplies many of the tools of Feuerzeig’s biography: Super-8 home movies, early drawings and boxes of cassette-recordings of songs, self-reflective monologues and family arguments. (He even recorded himself being arrested for scribbling on the Statue of Liberty in the early ’90s.) To share Feuerzeig’s loving investigation is to share an insightful study of the destructive and creative capabilities of the mind.