07 June 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a documentary I saw recently. After Jess' brief musical education, I sought out a few more tunes, then added the film to the top of my Netflix queue. Now I'm hooked on the man's songwriting genius.

Daniel Johnston is almost the quintessential crazy-genius artist. He draws, he writes music. Brilliant music. His simple, folksy tunes frequently touch on topics close to his heart: lost loves, Casper the friendly ghost, religion, friendship, Captain America and everyday life.

His promising career has been derailed dozens of times from his battle with Bipolar Disorder. Deeply religious, Daniel became obsessed with the devil and often believed those around him were evil and trying to hurt him. Through years of disastrous medications and frightening manic episodes, his unquenchable songwriting brilliance revealed his brightest dreams and darkest nightmares.

This film, gorgeously shot and directed by a former maker of commercials, combines Johnston's home movies and audio-diary tapes from the '80s and '90s with contemporary interviews with his family, friends and professional associates. The result is a painfully clear but sympathetic look at the life of a genius barely recognized in his time. I really liked and highly recommend this movie.

Daniel Johnston - Go.mp3
Daniel Johnston - Devil Town.mp3
Daniel Johnston - The Sun Shines Down On Me.mp3

And here's one of Daniel covering a classic Schoolhouse Rock! song:
Daniel Johnston - Unpack Your Adjectives.mp3
I like it better than the original!

Some might be turned off by the fact that Johnston's singing and playing skills are so mismatched with his songwriting. That is, he lends himself easily to covers. This is just a tiny sample of what's out there. The film estimates he's been covered by about 150 artists.

Sparklehorse & The Flaming Lips - Go.mp3
Bright Eyes - Devil Town.mp3
Guster - The Sun Shines Down on Me.mp3
Daniel Smith & Sufjan Stevens - Worried Shoes.mp3

Daniel put out tremendous amounts of material--dozens of albums on cassette tape alone. In addition to Fun and 1990, recommended in Jess' post, here's a few others of interest:
Continued Story/Hi, How Are You
Fear Yourself (with Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous)

Cover/Tribute albums:
Kathy McCarty: "Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston"
Various Artists: "I Killed the Monster: 21 Artists Performing the Songs of Daniel Johnston"
Various Artists: "Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered"

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