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"The Devil and Daniel Johnston"


Could there be a more unlikely pop star than Daniel Johnston? As a singer of lo-fi indie folk music, he sounds uncannily like Bob Dylan, if Dylan were pinching his nose closed while trying to do a warbly impression of Sylvester the Cat.

Overweight and often preferring to wear all white, he'd have been mocked from "American Idol" within the first bar of a song, but here he is in a full-blown documentary, where we learn that his art is sold worldwide, that he's been a regular on MTV, and that his songs have been recorded by the likes of Sonic Youth, Beck and Pearl Jam. Any observer is justified in asking, "How can this be?"

Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary takes us from promising beginnings, when Johnston furiously drew and recorded himself during early childhood at his parents' West Virginia home, through a dogged and fitful career as a musician. After a little understandable soul-searching at a few colleges, the oddball Johnston found Austin, Texas, a place just gaining a lot of attention for its music scene. This was the mid-'80s, way before Beck, and a lone guy with a guitar singing off-key about pop-culture references was considered avant-garde. Johnston got a lot of attention just for being different and weird. The problem is he turned out to be a lot weirder than everyone thought. Maybe it was the acid he dropped at a Butthole Surfers' show, but Johnston began shouting at the devil in a way Motley Cr�e never intended.

On the way to Johnston's partial salvation, Feuerzeig shows him singing versions of his song "Casper," featured on the soundtrack to the film "Kids." This is arguably Johnston's most recognizable contribution to pop music, even if he's not known for it. Was that his closest brush with stardom? We don't find out here. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is almost a targeted product the way it tells the story of Daniel Johnston —without telling us why he's so worthy of our attention. Johnston matters more than a footnote, but not enough for this 110-minute feature. ** S

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