Anyone who reads me regularly will probably know that I prefer watching films without knowing anything about them beforehand. Ideally, I don't want to have even the slightest idea about the plot or subject, the cast, or even who the director was. Of course, that's sometimes difficult to do, but as much as possible, I avoid reading or seeing anything about a film before I watch. I want to be a blank slate at the start of a film, without preconceptions.
I had never heard of Daniel Johnston before. So I watched this film for an hour before I finally realized, to my shock, that it's not some kind of Spinal Tap-like joke, which it seemed to be. When I thought it was a joke, I was enjoying it quite a bit. It appeared to be a mockumentary about a fat, dumpy, mentally ill guy whom people were calling a musical genius--"the best singer-songwriter of his generation", even though as we see in some concert footage, he can't really sing, play an instrument or write songs very well. At all.
In further explication of his "genius", we learn that he also did visual art--which were more or less the standard drawings of a kid obsessed with comic books and possessing some natural talent that could be developed. And we learn that he was an aspiring filmmaker. We see the standard young film fanatic kinda home movies--the kid could hold a camera steady and very rudimentarily frame a shot and do some editing. Nothing extraordinary, but again, maybe some talent there that could be developed. But the film kept focusing on his music, which the main character was maybe the most obsessed with, but for which he had absolutely no natural talent. Seemed funny to me, although maybe a bit too subtly executed to be as hilarious as Spinal Tap.
As it went on, however, it seemed to be less funny, and there were an increasing number of scenes that would have cost a fortune to fake. There were people I knew showing up in the film in historical shots, with Daniel inserted in what I thought was a Forrest Gump way. This was happening more and more, so finally, at the hour mark, I had to run to the computer and check the "All Music Guide" to see if maybe there really was a Daniel Johnston, and this wasn't a joke.
What had been mildly amusing and very quirky suddenly became perplexing. It's hard to believe that I'm not being put on. Now, I'm no objectivist on aesthetic value, but it's very difficult--and pretty frustrating--to see what anyone would find attractive about Daniel's music. He seems to only know a couple chords and very stereotypical chord progressions on both piano and guitar, and he can barely change from one chord to the next. His melodies are arbitrary--they're just whatever pitches happen to squeak out of his mouth as he recites his banal lyrics, which utilize "spoon-moon-June"-styled rhyme schemes. He barely understands rhythm. Yes, he's passionate about what he's doing, but so are the vast majority of people who can actually play an instrument, sing and write interesting songs. Johnston is no Syd Barrett. I'm a musician, too, and I could very literally teach anyone, and I mean anyone--learning disabilities and mental disorders or not--who has never touched a musical instrument before to do something comparable to what Daniel does within a week to a month. Why wouldn't they be considered geniuses? Why wouldn't they be well known, be offered record contracts, etc.? For that matter, why am I not considered a genius?
When it comes to Daniel's mental illness (or illnesses, maybe), the film is much more interesting to me, although I haven't known many people with a serious mental illness, so probably there's not that much very unusual about Daniel on that end, either. I did get to know Jaco Pastorius towards the end of his life, and there were some similar problems there behavior-wise (as well as similar problems for the people around him, including trying to have him institutionalized against his will). However, Jaco actually was a musical genius.
On technical terms, The Devil and Daniel Johnston isn't exactly a bad film. Director Jeff Feuerzeig probably didn't have an easy time of it, because he had to piece together a history of Daniel primarily by relying on home movies of poor quality. There are too many shots of cassette tapes and empty locations, but the film is pieced together competently and tells its story well enough. If you're at all a fan of Johnston, you should like The Devil and Daniel Johnston quite a bit.
But this is not the film that I want to see. The film that I want to see is one that explores the psychological and cultural phenomena of how someone like Johnston can come to be considered a genius, how he can come to work with so many artists who truly are gifted, especially when he continually does things to sabotage himself, and especially when not only do many other gifted artists not ever get a break, but any arbitrary person could do what Johnston does. I doubt I'll ever be able to quite figure it out.
(Edit:) Out of curiosity, I later listened to a few tracks from Daniel Johnston's albums--a couple from the early homemade tapes, and a couple from the later more heavily produced stuff. Oddly, the songs I heard, while not great in my view, showed at least some skill musically and vocally. That makes me wonder why Feuerzeig chose the songs that he did for the film, as they show Johnston as completely incompetent musically.