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Film & TV

Tragically Hip

The Devil and Daniel Johnston tells the sad story of a troubled hipster icon.

By Greg Beacham
Posted // June 11,2007 -

If you’re mentally ill, you must beware the hipster, for he wants to make you his mascot. If you’ve got a half-crippling neurosis or an insurmountable brain hurdle, yet you’re also cogent enough to create art without irony, the hipster will proclaim to all who will listen that you’re a cracked, misunderstood genius. He’ll come to your parents’ house and spend all the money his own parents gave him, just so he can buy your homemade art. He’ll have T-shirts made up, and he’ll spout to the alternative press about the great, undiscovered country that is your talent. The hipster loves idiot savants, I suspect mostly because they’re no competition to the frustrated artist inside every one of his kind. How can he be expected to match the spooky, dissonant creative output of a guy who is unable to leave his parents’ house?



Director Jeff Feuerzeig is that kind of hipster, but only in a very good way. The Devil and Daniel Johnston'which won the 2005 Sundance documentary directing award'tells the story of the titular manic-depressive singer, songwriter and artist. It’s the biggest contribution yet to the ridiculously overstuffed canon of praise for this strange middle-age man with graying hair, a reedy voice and homemade cassette tapes full of off-kilter, sometimes achingly beautiful songs about lost love, cartoon characters and other mundanities. With the same quiet, observational style of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Feuerzeig creates a comprehensive portrait of a longtime McDonald’s employee who’s beloved by celebrities and luminaries of the Austin music scene and beyond'someone who doesn’t seem to comprehend the real source of his love, yet still seems oddly determined to get more. Johnston is portrayed as some amalgamation of Brian Wilson, Jonathan Richman and William Hung, following the path of Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner into the most elite corridors of confessional indie rock.



And Feuerzeig makes sure it’s easy to understand the passion Johnston inspires in those hipsters. His lyrics are frighteningly devoid of the artifice and posturing in which everything we do is cloaked. He doesn’t instinctively shy away from the documentation of raw emotion, particularly in hundreds of songs about a girl named Laurie Allen, his teenage muse who married an undertaker. He has his own vocabulary and a roving viewpoint that often turns brilliantly non- sequitur (“Running water, where are you running from??).



Feuerzeig also hit a documentary filmmaker’s gold mine la Capturing the Friedmans in the Johnston family’s compulsive taping of nearly everything that has happened in their lives. The family bought a Super-8 camera and made movies, allowing Feuerzeig to start his story from the high-school days when Johnston was mostly praised for his similarly raw drawing talent. He was in and out of mental institutions in the 1980s and 1990s as his condition worsened, but his following only grew as his music became popular on the indie scene with each of his basement-created cassettes'which, as the legend goes, were sometimes recorded individually from scratch, because he didn’t know how to dub.



He attracted a cult celebrity following including everyone from Eddie Vedder to Matt Groening, and Kurt Cobain sometimes wore “Hi, How Are You?” T-shirts, celebrating his albums and artwork. He collaborated with Yo La Tengo, and his songs have been covered by everyone from Beck to Sonic Youth. He was also prone to vanishing for days at a time, disappearing into the streets of New York or simply going off to a carnival. He actively cultivated the fame born from his MTV The Cutting Edge appearance in a manner that shows he’s not quite as out of touch with reality as some hipsters might suggest. But when his illness hit hard, he sometimes fought the devil; he famously threw the keys out of his parents’ plane when he became convinced Satan was his co-pilot.



The hipster already has decided that Daniel Johnston is a genius. You might not be quite as convinced after you hear his music, though is homemade animated films show an unusual vision. But this much his clear: Feuerzeig took a rich documentary subject and didn’t miss a note, creating a complex portrait that’s only fawning in a few well-chosen places. It’s mostly just an unadorned treatise about this strange middle-age man who lives with his parents, and it invites you to decide whether the hipsters actually got it right this time.

 
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