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April 12-18, 2006

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Cult Leader

Museums of love: When cult movies meet cult music

By Steve Palopoli

THIS WEEK: cult movies about cult musicians. First, let me say that The Devil and Daniel Johnston is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, and the most visually inventive movie since Richard Linklater's Waking Life. Daniel Johnston is a man who sees every moment as a scary void screaming to be filled by art, and director Jeff Feuerzeig rather than trying to sugarcoat that perspective for better mainstream consumption has instead built his entire film around it. For years, Johnston has been pegged as an "outsider" artist (ooh, look how crazy he is, let's buy his records!). But this film puts everybody else on the outside and sees the people around him as he seems to see them (and us): sometimes loving, sometimes grotesque, always searching for a way to explain him rather than accept him. Johnston is the subject of this documentary; for once, the rest of the world is the object.

That said, watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston brought to mind the problem that all films about cult figures face: How do you get across what makes this person so extraordinary? Having a lot of talking heads saying someone is a genius doesn't necessarily make someone seem like a genius. In the case of Johnston, his life has been so off-the-scale bizarre that the details fill most of the film's 110 minutes. A few of his most accessible tunes are played, but it will take most people more than that to get past Johnston's erratic delivery and understand why he's one of rock music's most gifted songwriters ever (my advice: cover songs are a good place to start).

It made me wince when someone in the film said one of the only things Johnston cares about is "being John Lennon," and the audience laughed with the apparent absurdity. The truth is, Johnston did write the lines I suspect Lennon would have most wished he had penned himself ("Hold me like a mother would/ Like I've always known somebody should," from "Living Life"). At times when interviewees discuss Johnston's ambition and his burning desire to, for instance, be on MTV, it sounds hollow, like the empty quest for superstardom of Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Nothing could be further from the truth, in this case, but how can a film prove that? Will thousands of people discover Johnston's music because of this movie? I hope so, and clearly Feuerzeig does too.

While we're on the subject, here are some other recent cult movies about cult musicians waiting for you to discover them:

Dig!: Fans of Brian Jonestown Massacre often complain this movie is irresponsible, unfair and just plain mean. As if that's a bad thing! Supposedly it's a film about the Dandy Warhols and BJM, but has the actual music of the subjects ever mattered less in a music documentary? People watch this for the unbelievable antics of BJM lead singer Anton Newcombe. It's like a Spinal Tap for the indie set—only, of course, for real, which makes it all the more eye-melting at its most insane crescendos.

A Good Band Is Easy to Kill: You may have heard stories about what an insufferable control freak Beulah frontman Miles Kurosky can be. But I thought he came off sort of OK in this documentary about the band's final tour. Now, keep in mind that I watched this after seeing Dig!, and after prolonged exposure to Anton Newcombe, even Charles Manson would seem to make some interesting points. Overall, this is the rare film where the tone and style (hold on every performance, resist the urge for quick, flashy cuts) are successful in putting across the music of a cult band.

Be Here to Love Me: A film as poetic in spirit as its subject, Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. But Van Zandt, as he was in real life, is often a cipher here. Listen to his songs "Katie Bell Blues" and "Sanitarium Blues" to hear his more emotional perspectives on a couple of big issues in the film.

Fearless Freaks: Are the Flaming Lips acting this normal just to weird everybody out even more?

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: I'm Jeff Tweedy. Please love me. Please. OK, it's easy to make fun of this film as a wankfest for fans, but Sam Jones' documentary does do one thing extremely well, and that's show the creative process that produces a "genius" work. Perhaps that's as much of a real window into a cult phenomenon as one film can provide.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback, confessions about weird films you love and questions about that one movie you saw one time to [email protected]

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