What is it about mental illness and art that fascinates us? I think that’s a good question and I also think that sometimes artists get a critical boost precisely because they suffer from mental illness. Such is the case with Daniel Johnston, the songwriter and graphic artist whose serious mental issues have forced him into long institutional stays, near-death experiences, and derailed his career.
The thing about Johnston is that he’s not really all that good at anything having to do with music. He has a managed to write a few good songs that represent his lonely perspective on the world. But he is a terrible singer. He can’t play the guitar at all. I guess he’s moderately functional on the piano, but hardly what I would call talented. There really isn’t that much there musically to hang a hat on. But his weirdness and self-produced tapes from the Austin scene in the mid-80s made him a cult hero. Kurt Cobain wore that t-shirt everywhere for a year and the record companies were banging down the door. To the institution he was residing in after he went off his meds, took the key out of the helicopter his dad was flying, and threw them to the earth, leading to a crash that they both miraculously survived unhurt.
While I’m not a fan of Johnston, he did have one habit allowing for a pretty fair documentary–when he was young, he recorded his entire life, from his mom yelling at him to random conversations to his inner, disturbed thoughts. So there’s a lot of material to work with. Jeff Feuerzeig does a perfectly decent job with the film, giving us a window into the underground musical culture of the time and the relationship between art and mental illness. The most telling interview was with a long time musical journalist who talked about how he always thought the people who didn’t understand Van Gogh during his life and wanted to put him away were anti-artistic people who didn’t understand his tortured soul. Then he dealt with Daniel Johnston and completely changed his mind.