10 fantastic music biopics that you may not know

Films you might have missed but need to see.

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DOCUMENTARY No. 1

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSON (2005)

There may have never been a movie that examines the line between artistic genius and mental illness as effectively as Jeff Feuerzeig’s deep dive into the life and times of the barely recognized Daniel Johnson. It is something that the fictional account of Brian Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy, attempted to do and got about half right. Bill Pohlad’s 2014 movie about the genius behind the Beach Boys struggles in a way that is all too common for movies that skip around in time. One part of Love & Mercy (the Paul Dano sections) is excellent. Another part (with John Cusack) is less successful.

Feuerzeig doesn’t have that problem because he’s got all Daniel Johnson, practically from birth. The prolific artist appears in a seemingly endless supply of home movies from his youth to his present. We see the progression from a skittish young man to a skittish recluse, tormented by religion-themed nightmares that may have fueled his art, but simultaneously crushed his psyche. You can hear Johnson’s quirky tenor on many of his own recordings, or you can hear the hundreds of covers from artists big and small, including Tom Waits, Wilco, Beck, and Yo La Tengo (who accompany Daniel’s vocals on “Speeding Motorcycle.”)

Then there is a haunting Death Cab for Cutie take on Johnson’s “Dream Scream.” The Devil and Daniel Johnson may not convince you Johnson was the genius his fanbase believes him to be. It did not convince me of that. But it remains a fascinating account of a unique artist while raising serious questions about the interplay between creation and madness.