Daniel Johnston is a gifted musical talent and a deeply ill man: The two are inextricably entwined. ''The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is a documentary that lionizes and exploits him -- and, again, the two can't be separated. Jeff Feuerzeig's film is as good a portrait of the artist as a beloved basket case as you'll see, but it's kept from greatness by the questions it refuses to ask itself.
The movie tracks Johnston's early life as a hyperactive Renaissance kid who slowly fell prey to schizophrenia. He came to cult fame in the Austin music scene of the mid-1980s, obsessively writing and recording hundreds of songs that he played on a cheap organ and sang in a high, quavering voice. The lyrics were childlike and daft, the melodies absurdly catchy. Psychic pain courses through almost everything he has written; a song like ''Walking the Cow," from the homemade 1983 tape ''Hi, How Are You?," is both demented and heartbreakingly fragile, and you can't get it out of your head.
Cranking out his tapes and performing where he could, Johnston was taken up as a gifted genius-freak by the Austin hipoisie. At the same time, his mental state was fraying; dropping acid at a Butthole Surfers concert one night appears to have been the event that popped the bipolar cork. When MTV came calling for a 1986 special on the local scene, Johnston was prominently featured. By the time it aired, he had been institutionalized for attacking his manager with a metal pipe.
''The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is one roller coaster ride like that after another. The artist's 1988 visit to New York was an alternately surreal and pathetic adventure that culminated in a stay at Bellevue followed by a performance opening for fIREHOSE at CBGBs. Kurt Cobain took to wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt in the early '90s, bringing media attention and a major-label bidding war; one of the business meetings took place in a mental hospital.
More recently, Johnston has been living at home with his increasingly infirm parents, staying on his meds except when he performs. He plays sold-out shows in Europe; his brightly despairing cartoon artwork flies out of LA galleries; news articles celebrate him as ''an all-American weirdo." He's currently featured in the Whitney Biennial and is recovering from a kidney infection (possibly related to his medication) that put him into a coma.
What are we to make of this? Johnston's career pries open the assumptions and hypocrisies that surround ''outsider art" in this country. His work has a disturbing found-object innocence, yet in his lucid moments he's as ambitious as any working musician (and when he goes off the rails, his monomania is the dark side of rock-star excess). Johnston is a willing participant in his fame, but how much do his fans respond to the music and how much to his status as a hip train wreck? Where's the line between exploitation (including self-exploitation) and admiration? If Daniel Johnston weren't mentally ill, would anyone listen to his songs?
Just because there aren't easy answers to those questions (or flattering ones, anyway) doesn't mean they shouldn't be asked. Feuerzeig dodges the issue, though. He spends enough time with his subject for us to love Johnston and fear for him, and he rounds up the usual suspects: journalists, managers, family members, the unrequited teen crush for whom Johnston has written a thousand songs (she's married now and is appropriately appreciative and creeped out).
As eminently worthy as it is, ''The Devil and Daniel Johnston" never implicates the artist's audience, or itself for that matter. That title hints at a Faustian bargain, and certainly Johnston has moved through more circles of hell than you or I. Still, is it too painful to consider that the devil may be us?
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.