Short film celebrates local muralist, musician

Katie Walsh

In 15 minutes, director Gabriel Sunday invites viewers into the mind and home of Austin icon and artist Daniel Johnston with short film, “Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?”

After eight years and a successful Kickstarter campaign, “Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?” is available online to rent on Vimeo for $1.99. The 15-minute short film does not want to eclipse the 2005 full-length documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” Instead, it intends to provide a brief look inside Johnston’s head.  

The short begins and ends with Johnston, who has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in his living room. In the first scene, Johnston approaches a stack of shelves piled with old tapes and pulls out his 1983 cassette album, Hi, How Are You? and sticks it inside a tape player. His voice from 30 years ago floods the room and present-day Johnston responds, opening a dialogue between the two that continues throughout the short.

Two illustrated versions of Jeremiah the frog, one from 1983 and a fatter, hairier version from 2015, narrate the short, mirroring the dialogue between the past and present Johnston. Jeremiah the frog was made famous by the original album artwork for 1983’s Hi, How Are You? and the subsequent mural on 21st Street, painted by Johnston 10 years later.

Present-day Johnston reveals his despair as he sits with his mini chord organ, crooning about Laurie, the one that got away. Actual footage of Laurie that Johnston recorded decades ago plays on his television in the background. That old footage is woven between flashback scenes of Laurie, played by French musician Soko. 

Halfway through, the short transitions into a black-and-white scene inside a small garage-turned-recording studio. Present-day Johnston sits with the 1983 version of himself, played by Sunday, as he records Hi, How Are You?

The two discuss songwriting, heartbreak and happiness. In the last scene, 1983 Johnston asks his present-day self whether he is happy. He says no at first, but then explains that writing, drawing and his cat keep him happy. His last words, “There really isn’t a world with me. It’s my own world” hang in the air as the credits roll and Lana Del Rey’s haunting cover of Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time” plays. Del Rey is one of many musicians, including Kurt Cobain and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who cites Johnston as a source of inspiration.

The short brings the audience inside Johnston’s cluttered and memory-filled home. The dim, smoky space is a metaphor for Johnston’s mind – hazy, dark and brimming with nostalgia. During a conversation, present-day Johnston reminds his younger self that, “You have a chance as Dan Johnston to go wherever you want. I chose the darker side, but you should go with the light.”

The shots of Johnston are incredibly genuine. He’s clad in sweats on his couch, a cigarette perpetually dangling between his fingers. He stutters and squints, causally making side remarks under his breath as if a camera weren’t pointed directly at his face. 

The short accomplishes exactly what the director set out to do eight years ago – portray an accurate and intimate image of who Daniel Johnston is today. The camera angles and casual tone allow audience members to forget the physical barrier between themselves and Johnston and imagine themselves sitting on the couch next to him.

Sunday shows rather than tells the audience about Johnston’s mental state. Through the setting and perfectly chosen sound bites from past and present Johnston, “Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?” is a poetic and understated tribute to a key figure in Austin’s musical history.