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Playing `The Devil'

A documentary about Daniel Johnston is just like the cult musician: self-absorbed

March 31, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If you're already a fan of cult musician Daniel Johnston, you've been counting the days until the arrival of the new documentary on the man and his life, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." If you're not a fan, you're going to wonder what the fuss is about.

Not that Johnston, a singer-songwriter with an unmistakable reedy voice, is without noticeable gifts. His tunes have been covered by the likes of Beck, Wilco, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, artists who've fallen in love with eccentric lyrics such as "I lived my broken dream" and "Running water, where are you running from."

Nor has this particular life been lacking in drama. Currently 42 and living with his parents, Johnston has been manic-depressive since college. He was in and out of mental hospitals for decades, subject to all manner of delusions, visions and violent fantasies, many of them involving the presence of the devil.

Johnston once attacked his closest friend with an iron bar and put him in the hospital. A few years later he nearly crashed the small plane his father was piloting by throwing the keys out the window and putting the aircraft into a dive. A bit of an indie rock Brian Wilson, he was not the easiest guy to have around.

As directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, however, "Devil" turns out to be too indulgent and worshipful a film to justify its length (one hour and 50 minutes, including an interminable section on Johnston in high school), much less hold our attention for the duration.

Dominated by Johnston's closest friends and biggest fans, "Devil" is both too quick and too insistent to call this quirky performer an "incredible genius" and "the best singer-songwriter alive today." Yes, it's true that fan Kurt Cobain took to wearing a Johnston-designed T-shirt, but hasn't anyone ever heard of Bob Dylan?

"Devil" is so eager to venerate Johnston for his suffering it doesn't understand that a) his undeniably painful experiences haven't sanctified him and b) they're more tedious than involving when related in detail on-screen. A performer of formidable self-absorption, Johnston has inspired a film with the same trait, and the results are about what you might expect.


"The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language including a sexual reference

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Jeff Feuerzeig. Producer Henry S. Rosenthal. Executive producer Ted Hope. Cinematographer Fortunato Procopio. Editor Tyler Hubby. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

In limited release

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