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Reflecting on Daniel Johnston

G: Let me get this straight. Did you first hear of Daniel Johnston through The Devil and Daniel Johnston?

C: No. I first heard Daniel Johnston through Nirvana interviews and stuff. ’03 to ’05. I remember distinctly reading about him in Heavier Than Heaven. The first time I heard his music was in the movie Kids in the scene where the character Casper and several other kids beat the shit out of another kid in Washington Square Park. Even then, the music didn’t register to me. Between the Nirvana influence and it being in the Kids sound track, I asked you to burn a mix for me with “Casper The Friendly Ghost.” It really stood out to me for the first time on a mix. I never heard anything like that before. Didn’t have any means of comparison. That doesn’t happen much anymore.

G: So after “Casper,” where’d you go from there?

C: I would Wikipedia or YouTube him. I bought “Hi How Are You” and “Continued Story” and “Fun” after that. I rented The Devil and Daniel Johnston, we watched it.

G: Did we watch in your bedroom?

C: Maybe. I remember the next day I went to UMASS Lowell on a tour. I was on a bus thinking about Daniel Johnston. Not the college.

From there, it is a little more static. The history. Daniel Johnston was monumental for establishing a standard of how odd music could be. Yes, there’s the great pop song beneath the music. But for me, it was an introduction to the whole idea of that odd. So different from what you would call music. You show him to the average music fan, maybe some of the songs they will like. You show “Casper” to the average music fan and they would think it is non-sense. It was a different way of writing or making music. Similarly, the first time I heard The Stooges it gave me a headache. I had heard heavier music, but I remember listening and being like woah what the fuck. Same with Black Lips. Those first experiences were so special.

G: Were you interested in Daniel beyond just the music?

C: He was fascinating. You can’t fake how it was. He had some serious mental issues. I didn’t get too wrapped up by that. More fascinated by the music.

Classic Film Review: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Full Title: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Year: 2005
Before I go any further, I must warn you if you are planning on watching this documentary, then you will be possessed by the Devil… Did you hear me?! I said the DEVIL. SAYTUNNN!!! Now, if you think I should be locked up in the looney bin before I harm others and myself, then you are probably right, but this is not about me (The Devil and Chris DeCarlo will hit theaters in years to come) this is about the one and only Daniel Johnston. In this gentle, affectionate, film we see how Dan is an enthusiastic, earnest, artist, in spite or because of his various mental and/or social problems. Initially, he is simply a slacker, eshewing work and school for his art, much to the chagrin of his family; his parents in particular are objects of his animostity. Alas, as he grows older his mental capacity deteriates (hence his obsession with the Devil) and he is diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder causing him to be in and out of mental institutions and a serious threat to himself and those around him. I’ll stop here before I give away anything else, unless of course you know Dan’s bio… What I really like about this documentary is the fact that it stays personal via old home movies, tape recorded interviews, animation (coming straight outta Dan’s drawings, literally!), and of course interviews with his family, friends, and collaborators. The doc never strays off into a Michael Moore performance art sorta thang or a hidden agenda drenched picture. The agenda is clear: Daniel Johnston, love him or hate him, was and still is an incredible, gifted man with more passion in his art than most other artists one cares to name. Overall, this is a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from sad, humorous, fascinating, disturbing, entertaining, and ultimately touching- fans and non-fans unlike should see one of the finest documentaries of the last ten years.

P.S. excuse the “rollercoaster of emotions” cliche, but since Dan worked at an amusement park, I think it fits.

Grade: A-