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'Devil and Daniel Johnston' Indulges Singer's Fans


Documentaries on independent rock artists like Wilco, Townes Van Zandt and They Might Be Giants have been all the rage in recent years.

Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan looks at the latest, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

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

Johnston, a singer/songwriter with an unmistakably reedy voice, certainly has his gifts. His tunes have been covered by the likes of Beck, Wilco, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, artists who've fallen in love with his eccentric lyrics.

Mr. DANIEL JOHNSTON (Musician): (Singing) Come this far and I know I can make it. Got a broken heart, and you can't break a broken heart. I've come knocking at your door. But you don't love me any more. And I just can't give up, because I don't know what to do.

TURAN: And Johnston's life has been filled with drama. Age 42 and living with his parents, he 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 involved the presence of the devil; hence the film's title.

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.

Johnston was a bit of an Indy-rock Brian Wilson; definitely not the easiest guy to have around.

Mr. JOHNSTON: I was alone in my life with little to live for. Trying my hand at art, thinking that maybe I could save myself. But in my desperation, all my hope would fly away until there was nothing left but me. Nothing left to say.

TURAN: Unfortunately, Devil turns out to be much too indulgent and worshipful a film to justify its nearly two-hour length, much less hold our attention for that time span.

Devil is dominated Johnston's closest friends and biggest fans. As such, it is both too quick and too insistent to call this quirky performer an incredible genius and the best singer/songwriter alive today.

It's true that fan Kurt Cobain took to wearing a Johnston-designed t-shirt, but hasn't anyone every heard of Bob Dylan?

Also, Devil is so eager to be in awe of Johnston for his suffering, it doesn't understand that his painful experiences haven't sanctified him. And those exploits are more tedious and involving when related in detail on the screen.

Johnston is a performer of formidable self-absorption, who's inspired a film with the same trait.

MONTAGNE: The film is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Kenneth Turan is the film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (Singing) ...couldn't find a single friend. Had my heart set on disappointment.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.