‘Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston? (Short Film- 2015)’
-A 17 minute long psychedelic sadness, exploring the personal tapes of singer-songwriter-outsider artist and soft soul, Daniel Johnston.
I found Daniel Johnston, like a lot of people, through curiosity about the shirt that Kurt Cobain used to wear. I loved Nirvana ever since I was about 12 and I find an interest in not only their mind-blowing music but also the impact they had culturally. The little ‘Hi, how are you?’ motif, I remember seeing it in the film Whip It too. So that alien popped into my head a few weeks back, out of the blue and I went digging around the internet to see what he meant, what he stood for (said little alien has a role in the film, past alien has a chat with present alien just like Daniel, he’s an animation and over time he’s got chubby and older too. It feels welcome and homely). When I found out that this alien belonged to the sweet, soul-destroying music of Daniel Johnston I immediately went raking through all of his music and every song that played, for me had that bittersweet edge of feeling a twang in your heart because the sounds are so pretty but also feeling that drop in your stomach as you understand the pain in his voice. Something about sitting in my old pyjamas, hair scraped up off my face and no makeup on because I haven’t left my house in days, experiencing this music through my old scrappy laptop made this particular Youtube spiral feel like a big and important experience. I think my favourite song that day was Some Things Last a Long Time which I had previously heard in the ‘Unreleased Lana Del Rey‘ black hole of the internet, which happen frequently. I really fucking love Lana but that’s a story for another day. So yep Lana covered it and I thought it was lovely but never realised the origin of that- I know she was a big Nirvana fan too, she’s mentioned it in interviews and I recall she performed with Courtney Love before- The cover features at the end of the film. Today, my favourite song of his is ‘The story of an artist’; it’s painfully autobiographical, it is his truth in a song:
‘The artist walks alone
Someone says behind his back,
“He’s got his gall to call himself that!
He doesn’t even know where he’s at!”
The artist walks among the flowers
Appreciating the sun
He does this all his waking hours
But is it really so wrong?’
I think the whole process of tracking down this music made it more special. He’s a hidden gem, you have to do some digging to get to him, and the fact that he’s relatively unknown/ underrated means that everybody that knows of him is gushing. The comments on the film were like everybody was yearning and reaching out to eachother in an outpour of love. It feels like a big pool of people just treading water because that’s all they can do; the people that struggle because they’re too busy feeling everything.
-Daniel is a human treasure. He’s inspired me to fight my demons (among them, PTSD, addiction) & keep on recording my own music & films…
-This really touched my heart. As I watched and watched, I could just feel the words, songs, and images shown. And when he said you can’t go back to the way things were before because there’s no more (or something along the lines of that) I could feel my heart drop. Something about this short film comforted me. It was the satisfaction of expressing the sadness I burden in my mind. And knowing that it’s also present in many others…
The film debuted in 2015, as part of an immersive exhibition at the MAMA gallery in LA although the film is still very powerful standing alone.
‘She is the sweetest girl I ever have seen, I got this pain in my brain, it’s gonna crush me to death, ya know?’
Watching this film made me ache with a happy sadness, it feels like I’m nostalgic for a time that I’ve never known. We hear the above quote within the first 5 mins of the film, Daniel’s young, grainy voice is played through a cassette tape and he muses about a girl he was in love with. He is sheepish and lost in thought. All of the tapes were recorded when he was young for his future self and we are lucky enough to be able to watch present Daniel reflecting upon them.
Hearing the vunerability as he voices his thoughts through the old tapes, and watching him now smoke cigarette after cigarette and dumping them in a heavily overflowing ashtray just makes you want to bear hug the guy and tell him everything that makes you scared too.
So this film not only has my loves Daniel and Lana in it, it also features another musical hero of mine, Soko- She is acting, as she sometimes does. She looks like a vision in this ethereal soft light, with bouncy blonde hair like Marilyn Monroe as she interacts with young Daniel. Young Daniel is played by Gabriel Sunday who also directed.
The shot that the film drops you off with is a wide view of Daniel’s living room, it looks familiar, like friends’, who have these problems with their mental health that mean even though they’re smart, creative, caring, they are reduced to living this way. Clutter and cigarette smoke and loneliness. It’s like Daniel knows that this reality is dire and the best he can do is create, and retreat into his own reality.
‘There isn’t really a world with me, it’s my own world’
My final thought is this:
This film is not easy, it is not structured and it is massively invasive to the point of discomfort but it will give you feelings that will make you ache and dwell, it’ll give you a sense of beautiful fragility.
I’m aware that there is also a full length documentary about Daniel that was made in 2005 and picked up awards at Sundance that year. I’m going to source this one out and give it a watch soon as I can, but for now I found a trailer: