The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Feuerzeig, Jeff

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Jones, Therese
  • Date of entry: Jan-21-2009
  • Last revised: Nov-19-2009


The 2005 documentary film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, tells the story of Daniel Johnston, a mentally ill artist whose drawings have been exhibited and sold worldwide; whose music has been recorded by Beck, Wilco, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam; and whose fans include the actor, Johnny Depp and Simpsons creator, Matt Groening.  Diagnosed with manic depression complicated by delusions of grandeur, Daniel has spent the last three decades of his life in and out of mental hospitals.  His wild fluctuations, downward spirals, and periodic respites are chronicled in the film through compelling interviews, home movies, recorded tapes, and performance footage.  The title is an allusion to Johnston's intense Christian beliefs and his spiritual war with Satan.   


Our culture has long romanticized genius and madness, and the biographical documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, both represents and exploits our fascination with the creative output of a gifted but unstable individual.  As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge whether or not Daniel's drawing and music are truly visionary or simply novelty, truly unique or simply weird.  Can we experience and evaluate the work on its own merits, or has it become so influenced by the packaging of it as the expression of a mad genius (for instance, Kurt Cobain once described Daniel Johnston as the "greatest songwriter on Earth") that we become as delusional as the artist himself?

What the film does offer is a rare glimpse into the tormented mind of someone who has always identified and represented himself as a great artist.  From childhood, Daniel has documented his own life and work in hundreds of recorded songs and hours of videotape.  Thus, we can empathize with the raw frustration of his parents as Daniel cycles in and out of mania as a teenager acting out in the basement, and we can appreciate the cynical performance of the fine line between sane and insane in Daniel's recitation of his mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual on a stage.  The film ends with the sad and somber reality of the now middle-aged Daniel living with his aging parents who worry everyday about what will happen to him when they are no longer there.    


Writer and director, Jeff Feuerzeig, won the American Documentary Directing Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

Primary Source

DVD Sony Pictures