The music of Daniel Johnston isn't for everybody. That eerie, trembly, little-girl caterwaul, the archetypal lo-fi keyboard, the basement recordings dubbed over and over onto cheap cassette tapes...it takes a certain amount of devotion to underground music to appreciate the man's secretly sublime pop songs.
Such is not the case, however, with Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary about Johnston's rollercoaster life. It's a heartwrenching story, and Feuerzeig tells it with such honesty, restraint and respect that the film's appeal extends well beyond the obvious audience of indie-music fans.
"This is by no means a 'rock doc,'" Feuerzeig told WW while in town for the film's premiere at the Portland International Film Festival. He should know. Feuerzeig directed one of the best music documentaries of all time, 1993's Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King.
But music is only one small aspect of the complex character that is Daniel Johnston. There are also his films, his artwork (his drawings were included in this year's Whitney Biennial), his obsessive recording and documentation of every important moment in his life, his spiral into mental illness, and the walking shell of a man he is today. "The film I made," says Feuerzeig, "is about a living ghost."
The story starts around 1985, when a homemade Daniel Johnston cassette fell into Feuerzeig's hands. There were line drawings of classic Johnston characters like Joe the Boxer, and "between these incredible songs of unrequited love," Feuerzeig says, "he'd recorded his mom yelling at him. The songs were so openly about his mental illness—it was like performance art, this record."
The filmmaker, then living in New Jersey, was immediately fascinated. He started hearing about this crazy kid from Texas who hustled his way onto MTV and handed his tapes to everyone he met. Johnston was already making himself a legend, Feuerzeig says. "And he was doing it on purpose. He was the wizard behind his own curtain, you know? He exploited his own mental illness. He was obsessed with fame, but he was obsessed with the right kind of fame—he did all the work."
Which is lucky for Feuerzeig. Johnston had a huge body of recordings to draw from, but the filmmaker also found enormous stashes of audio diary-style cassettes Johnston had recorded and, most exciting of all, the teenage Daniel's Super 8 films, which he directed and starred in. A large portion of Feuerzeig's film consists of these Super 8s, in which Johnston plays both himself and his mother, caricatured as a raving harpy. His mother, like the rest of the family, gamely participates in Feuerzeig's retelling of Daniel's story. Their part of the tale is perhaps the most heartbreaking—when their wildly creative, artistic son collapses into mental illness, they're forced to take care of him themselves, and they worry aloud about what will happen to Daniel when they're gone.
The entire film feels haunted by people who are gone. Daniel's muse, Lori, appears only in one of his old movie reels, frozen in time. Several times, Feuerzeig returns to the scenes of key events and walks his camera through them, filming the empty spaces where Daniel Johnston used to be. Combined with all those archival recordings, it's an amazingly effective technique for telling the story of a man who has disappeared into himself. Feuerzeig's right, this isn't a rock doc—it's a love story and a ghost story.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. Friday-Thursday, May 12-18. $4-$7.