The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

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Released 4-Apr-2007

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2005
Running Time 105:35
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Ads Then Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Jeff Feuerzeig
Studio
Distributor

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Jeff Feuerzeig
Louis Black
Bill Johnston
Daniel Johnston
Mabel Johnston
Jeff Tartakov
Case ?
RPI ? Music Daniel Johnston


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

†††† There aren't too many music documentaries like The Devil and Daniel Johnston. But, to be fair, there aren't too many performers like Daniel. This DVD has been out for a couple of years now but the recent visit of Johnston (his first) to our shores calls for a look back at this excellent documentary

†††† For those not in the know, Daniel Johnston is an artist who sometimes straddles the divide between alternative music legend and freak show tent spectacle. A lifelong sufferer of mental health he is no singer, not really a guitarist and his lyrics are remarkable for their frankness rather than their precision. On tour in February for the St Jerome's Laneway Festival he shambled on-stage with his boots and tracksuit pants looking more like a roadie that the main event. His bedside manner was at times odd; his arms wracked with medication shakes, telling the crowd that he had just about run out of songs to perform when he has hundreds in his bag of tricks, performing with the songbook on a stand and taking a break for a minute with the promise of "coming back with the band" only to sheepishly admit later that he had forgotten that "we don't have a band"!

†††† All this points to a troubled soul and raises the question of exploitation of the mentally ill. Listen for a few minutes, adjust to the reedy voice and indifferent guitar pickings and the true Daniel Johnston comes though, a star not in spite of adversity but perhaps because of it.

†††† The documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig was assembled from an astonishing mass of home videos and other material. It presents a picture of a complex yet strangely complete artist. That the film was made at all is probably not a result of Danielís insistence but rather the indie cred that Johnston gained in the mid-eighties and early nineties when he was featured on an MTV special about music in Austin, Texas, and when Kurt Cobain started performing gigs with a t-shirt featuring Johnstonís iconic "Hi how are you?" frog drawing (Johnston is also an acclaimed artist of the outsider variety). Ironically, with his cache at its highest Johnston was in poor shape, taking one of his regular time outs at a mental institution. It is an urban legend that he was signed to a major record label whilst in the institution. The truth is pretty close. That probably makes it a first, although plenty of rock stars have ended up there after being signed. The signing story instead becomes an insight into Danielís former manager. Film fans will liken him to Woody Allen from Broadway Danny Rose, only for Jeff Feuerzeig to use footage from that film to illustrate the sad fall of the manager from Danielís grace.

†††† Four years in the making the film has an obvious flaw in that it was made by a fan convinced of Johnstonís genius. That is likely to grate with anyone who sees their musical geniuses as flawless craftspersons or inspirational performers, of which he is neither.

†††† The film is chronological and gathers interviews and old footage of friends, music industry people and Danielís long suffering family. Growing up amongst a conservative Christian family in New Cumberland, Virginia, it can't have been easy for Daniel who was convinced that he was an art prodigy. As his family relates, he was a different kid who wanted to hang out in the basement and practice his strange craft or, according to his mother, practice the devilís work. If the wealth of Super 8 film footage is startling it is even more amazing that Daniel retained audio tapes of harangues from his mother, giving him "what for". It is in these exchanges and the interviews with Danielís parents that the melancholic emotional core of this film comes through. The mid-section of the film is almost unwatchably sad as the deeply disturbed Daniel made an ill-fated trip to New York with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, completely flipping out and becoming a danger to himself and the people around him. He became obsessed with "casting out Satan" and was arrested for chasing an old lady out of her two story window (Daniel states that the demons did it!).

†††† His parents constantly tried to move him away from art and music, convinced he had no talent. They can be criticized for that. Yet they are the ones, even now, who live near him and they are the ones who worry about what will happen to him when they die. As the film shows, Danielís problems are as much a product of support as detraction.

Like all great documentaries this film leaves the viewer thinking about the subject for days after. Daniel doesn't actually appear in the film and is not interviewed. When he looms into shot during an interview of his mother it is like a rare wild animal in a nature documentary. Music lovers should see this film as well as anyone with a passing interest in art and mental illness.

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Transfer Quality

Video

†††† Anyone who comes to The Devil and Daniel Johnston expecting visual perfection, let alone sonic perfection, probably hasn't heard any of his albums. This film comprises film sources from all over the place, including recent footage filmed on digital video and really old stuff taken by Johnston himself on 8mm and 16mm film. The old footage is covered with mould and looks pretty dreadful. The quality, however, suits the filmmakerís intentions.

†††† This comes in a 1.85:1 transfer which was consistent with the original aspect ratio. The modern interview footage is fine and the flesh tones are accurate. There is a bit of digital noise about but nothing of any concern.

†††† There are subtitles for the hearing impaired (which came on automatically when I popped the DVD in the player) which give a good account of the on-screen action.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

†††† The Devil and Daniel Johnston contains two soundtracks. One is a Dolby Digital 5.1 at 448 Kb/s and the other a Dolby Digital 2.0 at 224 Kb/s. The 5.1 is a little fuller but either is acceptable. The music of Daniel Johnston is defiantly lo-fi. Much of his early material was recorded on a tape deck in a garage. All this makes it sound even better! The film features all his non-hits Speeding Motorcycle, Don't Play Cards With Satan, True Love Will Find You In the End and the affecting I Had Lost My Mind.

†††† The dialogue is clear and easy to understand although things get a little difficult in Danielís home movies. The audio sync appears fine.

†††† Some of the old soundtracks are a little crackly and hissy but again this adds to the attraction.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

†††† This is a bare bones release. A pity, as the Region 2 release includes a whole DVD of extras including :

††††One of the Deleted Scenes is apparently a reunion between Daniel and his muse Laurie Allen.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

††See above. Region 1 seems to be the go for fans.

Summary

†††† The Devil and Daniel Johnston is one of the most enthralling documentaries of the last 5 years because it places an unblinking eye on its subject and lets the viewer decide whether things worked out the way they should have. The director clearly loves his subject but that doesn't prevent him from showing the terrible, insaner depths to which Daniel fell and the pain he caused his parents.

†††† The DVD is of an acceptable quality and the old, mouldy film stock perfectly represents the subject.

†††† No extras!

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayPioneer PDP-5000EX. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR605
SpeakersJBL 5.1 Surround and Subwoofer

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