Johnston’s life of talent and torment

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IOL Devil Daniel Johnston

Helen Herimbi

In the arts, there is a fine line between being a genius and taking people for a ride. An apt example of the latter would be that whole Lil John stunt of screaming “yeah” over every single track.

That aside, there have been some musicians who pushed the envelope so far that fans and critics were divided as to whether it was pure genius or taking the piss.

Unplugged, Lauryn Hill’s follow-up to the classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was one of those albums many people thought was ahead of its time.

But it was also one that pretty much almost ended the rapper-singer’s recording career and led other people to speculate if she had perhaps lost her marbles.

When it comes to Ms Hill – as she demanded to be called by the press a few years ago – it seems she took a break from the industry and didn’t come back as the record-breaking, multiaward-winning “rapper-slash-actress [who’s] more powerful than two Cleopatras”.

Her change was said to be the result of her spiritual awakening. Now, Daniel Johnston, on the other hand, is a different case. You may have heard the name mentioned alongside the likes of Syd Barret as being notable Outsider Musicians.

According to wikipedia, outsider music is “songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write songs that ignore standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training, or because they disagree with formal rules”.

See how it could be possible that Johnston is said to have been revered as a genius by people such as the late Kurt Cobain?

Throughout his expansive career – he was even featured in a Woodstock 1985 documentary – Johnston has skirted the fine line between being a maverick and not.

But because of his schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, the American musician has sometimes been dismissed by critics and often adored by the rebel rousers with mics in their hands.

It’s no wonder then that he was the subject of the well-received documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which airs on TopTV’s Silver channel on Wednesday. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, this is the story of Johnston – from his childhood up until the early 2000s.

There is a particular emphasis placed on how his life and music have been affected by being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This 2005 documentary won the Directing Documentary Award at the Sundance Festival that very year and should be interesting to watch.

‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ airs on Silver (TopTV channel 112) on November 14 at 8pm.

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