The Devil Within: The Story of Daniel Johnston

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Kurt Cobain idolized him, Sonic Youth protected him, and dozens of the biggest names in contemporary rock have recorded his music. Yet few people actually know his work. Daniel Johnston is finally getting wider recognition for the brilliance of his flame.

Some talented artists and musicians have never fit neatly into boxes of human expectation. Their artistry is grounded in something extraordinary, coupled with intense vision, a strong sense of vitality and a burning desire to pursue their dreams. But those same qualities may characterize the mind of a highly unstable individual. If not careful, creative people can seriously suffer at the hand of their own invention. Working in the music business, I've witnessed a lot of artists' suffering untreated.

Our history books are littered with examples of this kind of pain, from classical music's Robert Shuman to Axel Rose, Tom Waits, and Brian Wilson. Recognized as being outside the mainstream, their intrinsic outsider sensibilities can undermine their success.

Living with the challenges that come with an artistic life coupled with mental disorders can be incredibly heartbreaking.

For many years, the public has not been allowed inside the life of the creative mind. The personal sanctity of this vulnerable place was to be preserved. But in the realm of the digital age, recording everything has become commonplace.

On March 31, the film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston will be opening in Los Angeles. It's an unusual documentary about the marginalized life of this interesting musician, songwriter and cult hero.

From his early teenage years, Daniel began showing signs of striking artistic ability. Obsessed by a desire to record his life, he began filming himself on Super 8. The films, become the foundation of the documentary, but the story that director Jeff Feuerzeig tells is far more interesting.

Daniel ran away from his fundamentalist Christian family in Virginia, by joining a carnival coming thru town. He ended up in Austin, Texas, where he began writing and recording many of his songs on cheap cassettes. He became a local legend, giving away his music to fans, friends and journalists. Then, in the early 80's, MTV came to Austin to produce a new music show called The Cutting Edge. Daniel secured himself a few minutes on the show, earning him the spotlight as a local celebrity. Suddenly, this newfound stardom was hijacked by an underlying mental illness of manic depression.

Following his short-lived glory, his struggle with manic depression became more pronounced and his behavior far more erratic. Lacking the ability to recognize consequences, Daniel set off on a path of self destruction that was truly disturbing. Equally frightening is just how much of Daniel's life is on film, visually retelling the details of his terrifying ordeal.

With current footage shot in Austin, and vintage performances, home movies and recorded audiotapes by Daniel himself, the film paints a vivid picture. It's a moving portrait of a man, with brilliance unadulterated, and mental illness untreated. Rarely does a film get to capture so much honesty with so little judgement. It's well worth seeing.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.