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A Rockin' Roiled Kind of Guy

April 27, 2006 By:
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Singer/artist Daniel Johnston composes himself.

What happens when the disruptive sounds a mentally disabled artist hears in his own head find their way out onto the street? When the brain serves as a cacophonic symphony space for neurons and abnormalcy clashing against each other?

In the case of Daniel Johnston, what happens is an arcane career and notoriety among the rock 'n' roiled crowd who consider him a bipolar, bitalented "genius songwriter artist."

Portrait of a young troubled man as artist evolves onscreen in Jeff Feuerzeig's disarming documentary of a man-child with manic depression.

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" opens in the area on Friday, April 28.

Feuerzeig's focus is an F-stop that never stops from trying to reveal the art and penetrate the arsenal that serves as armature for the oversized boy who has escaped into adulthood somehow; Johnston's self-directed - and self-indulgent - Super-8 home movies of himself reflect a Daniel in Wonderland inner fantasy of a life. His compulsive cassette recordings of his own observations and critiques of everything surrounding him are critical in helping Feuerzeig forge a compelling pictionary of his subject.

With a fan base that includes the late Kurt Cobain and the very much alive Matt Groening, Johnston would almost seem a "Simpsons" sibling if it weren't for the fact that he has been observed as a functioning three-dimensional character.

Three-dimensional: It's a fine point to put on this fine Feuerzeig film, which has captured the many odd and unequal angles that go into making a Daniel Johnston, shown set to square off against the devil of denial that is mental illness.

Feuerzeig has described his venture as a "ride on the space shuttle." And it must have been quite a spin to bump up against the mercurial and shooting star that is Johnston. Five years after filming first started, the eagle has landed - and with it, a symphony of praise and plaudits for the finished work, which Feuerzeig considers "a very personal film."

"It's right from the heart," but it's also able to sneak in a left-hook occasionally, catching the observer off guard as the avant-garde gadfly creates his art and comic books to serious effect.

A Longtime Fan

"I was obsessed with his music and his art since I first discovered them in 1985," says Feuerzeig, who had earlier directed "Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King," tellingly a popular project about Johnston's friend/colleague Jad Fair.

But this project, of course, could have gone either way, a possibility anytime one deals with a manic-depressive. "I am not an expert on bipolar disorder, but I read this great book in which the author relates that all great artists have suffered from bipolar disorder, who, in their manic states, would create masterpieces."

In a way, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is a masterful piece of cinema, a marriage of art and anxiety as it examines Johnston in sickness and in health.

It is as if Feuerzeig's camera had sidled up to Johnston's creative and troubled mind, and let it rock 'n' roll without restrictions.

"The whole point of the film is to take you on a rare journey," says Feuerzeig.

Indeed, this is no SEPTA stopover, no Amtrak ambushed by rotting rails and "minor delays." This is a robust, roarin' ride through the mountains of Johnston's rocky mindset.

"Out of his bipolar illness comes this incredible beauty," says the director of the singer/artist who debuted at New York's Knitting Factory six years ago, with nary a stitch of professional credits to his résumé.

Fundamental Issues

What was fundamental to understanding his subject was getting to know Johnston's disapproving parents, whose fundamental religious beliefs had them thinking their son was not so much a rebel as an irreligious reject.

"Fundamentalism on any level is not my world," says the proudly Jewish filmmaker, who accompanied the Johnstons to church services to see for himself the environment in which Daniel was raised.

But there were no major revelations; more revelatory were "the hundreds of notebooks" crammed with the composer's lyrics that Feuerzeig found later on.

The find for many fans is in Johnston's greeting card of a song, "Hi, How Are You?" which, ironically, found its singer in dire straits; the simple-sounding yet complicated song was recorded when Johnston was suffering through a nervous breakdown.

Break down what he does to win over so many fans and followers, and it's more simple than complex, says Feuerzeig: "He has never subverted what music is supposed to sound like and what art is supposed to look like."

And that, contends the filmmaker, is how one Daniel Johnston was able to take the devil by the tale and create his own.

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