TORONTO””When Jeff Feuerzeig is told that his award-winning documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, seems too weird to be true, he laughs and agrees.
“Daniel Johnston's life truth is stranger than fiction. You couldn't make up what happened to the guy. It's idyllic. He ran away to the carnival and became a carny, but he ran away on a moped. What does Daniel do? He writes his biggest hit song, 'Speeding Motorcycle', about that,” Feuerzeig says. “Throwing the woman out the window from his church? Crashing his dad's plane? You couldn't make this shit up. And he lived. And he thought he was Casper the Friendly Ghost when he crashed that plane.”
Johnston is a manic-depressive fundamentalist Christian whose songs””which were mostly recorded on a low-end boom box””have been covered by artists like Beck, Wilco, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam. His simplistic cartoon art is shown in galleries around the world. Even Spinal Tap never got that strange.
Almost as implausible as Johnston's life is Feuerzeig's obsession with it. Sitting on the patio of the Hotel InterContinental, Feuerzeig””who won the director's award at Sundance for this film and whose previous documentary Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King was a cult hit”” explains how he fell in love with Johnston's story in 1987 while working in college radio. “Word sort of trickled to the West Coast about this incredible naive waify kid, Daniel Johnston. And I got ahold of his homemade cassette, Hi How Are You. And on this tape were these incredible songs of unrequited love about a girl named Laurie. But you hadn't ever quite heard love songs like this before. And what was so fascinating was besides these heartbreaking songs and this incredible piano-playing between the songs were snippets of his mom yelling at him. And then, on the cover, was this minimalistic artwork of this frog, the frog of innocence. And it was very apparent to me that this guy was not only a great singer-songwriter, this guy was a major artist. He sucked me into this world.”
Because those were the primitive, pre-Internet days, Feuerzeig followed Johnston's career through newspaper articles, and when he heard that a radio station in New Jersey was broadcasting an hourlong Daniel Johnston special, he made sure to tune in.
“Daniel Johnston produced on his two cassette decks the most elaborate radio production I've heard since Orson Welles's War of the Worlds, except it's much, much scarier,” Feuerzeig says. Johnston was broadcasting over the phone lines from a West Virginia mental hospital, interviewing himself, playing his songs, and performing sketches where he'd play every character. “His obsession with fame comes through,” the director adds. “His beautiful, naive songs of love. He was improvising songs on this tape. And then he took calls from the listening audience and I called in and I met Daniel live on the airwaves of WFMU.”
Feuerzeig asked Johnston if one of his songs was inspired by Bruce Springsteen's “Cadillac Ranch” . Johnston admitted it was. “So I was already sort of deciphering Daniel Johnston even back then.” And he started wondering how to tell Johnston's story.
“When I heard the radio special in 1990, that's when I got the idea to make this film....I said, 'If I can make a film that's as good as Daniel Johnston's radio show, that had all his humour, his darkness, his naiveté””if it had all of the above that's in the radio show””and his jump-cut Woody Allen humour, then I would have a true reflection of Daniel Johnston and myself.'?”
But it wasn't until Feuerzeig saw Johnston in concert almost a decade later than he knew it was time to tell the story. “He was like a prophet. He had us laughing and he had us crying. We were all weeping, because his songs were so beautiful, and he was a master performer. He had us eating out of his hand. And that's when I knew that Daniel Johnston has an Act 3. It's time to make this film; he lived and he's creating. So I called my producer, Henry Rosenthal, and said, 'Let's go up on the space shuttle. Let's go film Daniel Johnston.'?”
If Johnston is a prophet, Feuerzeig is less biographer than apostle. “To me, in my world, he's one of the greats, and you're not going to meet another guy like this. And he walks among us. Daniel's music, his art, and his life is one of the most unique stories I've ever heard....And I think it's an incredibly heartbreaking and inspiring story. It's a comic story and a tragic story. Its got it all. Daniel Johnston is a very, very funny guy and a tragic guy. He's God's lonely man.”