Screened as part of NZIFF 2005
This riveting documentary charts the life and music of Daniel Johnston, a Texas-based singer-songwriter, artist and cult hero, who makes Robert Crumb seem like a well-adjusted, relaxed guy. Johnston writes songs with genuine melodic verve, full of comic book characters, dream girls, monsters and li’l battlers struggling to keep up with life – and delivers them in a shaky and plaintive, but sweet, voice that manages to reach a bit too close to the bone for comfort. Through the songs and his comic-book inspired artwork, he’s created a deceptively simple, yet extremely wracked universe, from which he can expound at length upon his own lifelong unrequited love (she married an undertaker), his family difficulties, religion, his ongoing battles with severe bipolar depression and his general sense of guilt and failure.
With access to Johnston’s huge mountain of self-documentation on audio and video, Feuerzeig has charted, movingly and often alarmingly, the singer’s life progression: from talented but lazy teenager fighting with his folks about what he’s going to do with his life; to endearingly self-promoting Holy Fool figure pushing his songs into a world that’s happy to be impressed by them; then scarily crazy big guy comprehensively derailed by a combination of acid and religion; to the present day Daniel, a battered and damaged middle-aged man who leans a little too heavily on his elderly parents in trying to make his own life stable.
There’s a lot of time spent watching some amazing intense performances – both on and off stage – but Feuerzeig has managed to give a good idea of the absurd toll taken on the performer and the people around him – this is a cripplingly sick man who at one stage would methodically and secretly go off his medication two weeks before a gig, because he felt he performed better crazy. Audiences will be divided over his music – some will immediately want to hear all of his songs, others will find him too raw or too painful to listen to. But even those not engaged by the songs will be affected by the impossible life led by the singer, in a complex film that’s half about successfully pursuing a romantic dream of being an artist, and half about how much you can destroy yourself along the way. — Campbell Walker