The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, FRCPC

USA 2005 Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Most reviews of The Devil and Daniel Johnston contain the word heartbreaking. The film chronicles the life of Daniel Johnston, a singer/songwriter and cartoonist whose previous widest public exposure occurred at the 1992 MTV Music Awards when Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt with a Johnston drawing. Unfortunately, Daniel Johnston’s musical career was derailed early by a severe psychiatric illness, and this documentary relentlessly captures the history of both his mental instability and his artistic talents. With the help of Daniel’s drawings, notebooks, home videos and self-recorded audiocassettes of his music and musings, viewers first learn of Daniel’s origins (he was born in 1961 in Sacramento, California, the youngest of five children), his relentless creativity as a teenager (and the not unexpected conflicts with his Christian fundamentalist parents), and then his college days where he meets Laurie Allen. His unrequited love for her would serve as a lifelong muse. Johnston’s subsequent odyssey is almost unbelievably chaotic. The highlights were early and brief – his haunting lyrical compositions, his unexpected MTV appearance (while he worked cleaning tables at McDonald’s in Austin, Texas) and the remarkable record company bidding war orchestrated by his devoted manager Jeff Tartakov during which Daniel was a psychiatric inpatient. (In the midst of negotiations, Tartakov was inexplicably fired by Johnston, but Tartakov remains devoted just the same – the other striking example of unrequited love in the film). Unfortunately, the lowlights include disastrous breakdowns (including one incident where he crashed an airplane), a mad suicidal visit to New York, discord with siblings, frequent admissions to psychiatric institutions, difficulties with the law, and persistent delusions and social dysfunction despite what appears to be aggressive psychopharmacology. Currently, a somewhat subdued Johnston lives with (and is cared for) by his devoted elderly parents.

There is one moment in the film that will particularly resonate for those psychiatrists with artists and other creative individuals in their clinical practices. During an admission to a psychiatric facility, and obviously experiencing sideeffects on medication, Johnston painfully half-sings, “I couldn’t write a song if I tried, I couldn’t write a song if I tried. Something deep inside has gone up and died, and now I couldn’t write a song if I tried.” Although this sentiment is not as subsequently eloquently or explicitly expressed in the rest of the film, there appears to be little doubt that either medications and/or his illness have continued to stifle Daniel’s creativity, despite Daniel’s heroic efforts to continue writing songs and to draw.

Although it’s not entirely clear whether Daniel’s illness is indeed that of Manic- Depressive illness as labeled in the film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston highlights not only the potential relationship between creativity and psychiatric illness, but also the difficult issues associated with treatment in the context of artistic imagination and productivity. As Kay Redfield Jamison queries in her book Touched with Fire, “If manic-depressive illness and its associated temperaments are relatively common in artists, writers, and composers, and if the illness is, at least to some extent, an important part of what makes their work what it is, what are the implications of treating the underlying disease and its temperaments?” Many artists appear to believe that their emotional experiences are essential to their artistic abilities, and are hesitant to consider interventions, particularly medication, despite their intense personal suffering. On the other hand, psychiatrists are painfully aware of the potentially fatal consequences of untreated serious psychiatric illness. As Jamison succinctly highlights, “No one is creative when paralytically depressed, psychotic, institutionalized, in restraints, or dead because of suicide.” Although ultimately it is the artist who will decide the terms of his or her treatment, it is the psychiatrist who must insure that this is an informed decision. It should go without saying that if a particular medication appears to be associated with unacceptable side effects, including adversely affecting artistic creativity, the availability of alternative treatments should be explored and shared.

Director Jeff Feuerzeig won the Best Director award for The Devil and Daniel Johnston at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and the film was an official selection at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Not yet theatrically released in Canada (this is scheduled for April 2006), the film was also recently screened at Toronto’s annual Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival. This important Festival, now in its 13th year, is produced by the Workman Theatre Project, a non-profit professional arts company which supports individuals who receive or have received mental health and addiction services in their artistic pursuits. Lisa Brown, the Executive Director of the Workman Theatre Project recently received a well-deserved Canada’s Governor General’s award in recognition of her role in founding and sustaining the initiative. All of the Rendezvous with Madness Festival screenings occur at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Queen Street location. Consistently characterized by its edgy and courageous programming, the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, is worth seeing.

And now a curmudgeonly aside. Although there is little doubt as to the presence of Daniel’s psychiatric illness, regardless of the precise diagnosis, his artistic abilities are more debatable, at least from my perspective. His musical devotees apparently include Kurt Cobain, Beck, Pearl Jam and an evergrowing cult audience. An increasing number of international artists are recording his songs. His drawings have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Zurich and Berlin. Yet his artwork appears puerile. And although his lyrics can be moving, after listening to Daniel’s singing voice, one of his most insightful statements in the film appears to be the following, “When I was 19, I wanted to be the Beatles. I was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t sing.” But judge for yourself –  Daniel’s music, artwork and memorabilia is available for sale on the official Daniel Johnston website at