DANIELSON: A FAMILY MOVIE
(JL Aronson, USA, 2006, BETA-SP, 105 mins.)
"They sound like Captain Beefheart's Magic Band joined by the Partridge Family
at some roadside revival along the Jersey Turnpike."
-- The All Music Guide
I watch documentaries for two basic reasons: To learn more about subjects
with which I already have some familiarity, and to learn about subjects with
which I have no familiarity. Although I had heard of the group, I knew next to nothing about the Danielson Famile before I watched JL Aronson's informative profile. Now, I know quite a bit -- but I still would've liked to learn more.
Leader of the band is Clarksboro, New Jersey artist/musician Daniel Smith,
a devout Christian who's been playing music professionally since college. In
fact, the Danielson Famile began as his Rutgers thesis project (Aronson includes
footage from the original engagement). Like the Von Trapps or the Partridges, they're an all-family combo. Though the parents don't participate, they encouraged their five redheaded children to sing hymns and to play instruments from an
early age. The Danielson story is told mostly by Smith and his siblings.
This brings us to that moniker. Smith chose Danielson to indicate that he's
a son of God. (Interestingly, he studiously avoids dropping the name Jesus
Christ, possibly to avoid putting off secular fans.) From the beginning, the
group performs in white doctor and nurse uniforms with their names emblazoned
in red over their hearts to symbolize "the healing power of the Good News."
A Prayer for Every Hour (1995)
If you're not familiar with Danielson, you might think they play Christian rock.
They don't -- not in the traditional sense -- and this is where things get interesting.
It also explains why this film exists, i.e. Smith is neither your average Christian
nor your average indie rocker. The clean-cut kid is a true original. Throughout his career, he's recorded strictly for independent labels, like Tooth & Nail and Secretly Canadian, and plays rock clubs instead of limiting himself to church gatherings.
Yet he's never made any secret of his beliefs, which play a big part in his music.
Not only that, but it's pretty offbeat stuff -- like the Shaggs covering the Velvet Underground -- and Smith has a highly unusual singing style. As his high-pitched warble suggests Daniel Johnston, it's little surprise when Johnston enters the
scene. More surprising is when Steve Albini (Big Black) puts in an appearance.
The Chicago musician/producer might not seem like a Danielson fan, but he is.
So much so that he invites them to England to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival he's curating (Danielson has also worked with eccentric producer Kramer). The conversation between Smith and Albini is worth the price of admission alone.
Smith as "The Tree of Nine Fruits"
Arsonson began filming A Family Movie in 2002 and wrapped things up this year.
He follows Smith from the family line-up to the friends-and-family version to his current incarnation as Br. Danielson. Once his siblings disperse for college, marriage, etc., Smith calls on outside players. That iteration continues, but he's mostly a
solo act these days. During the course of the movie, he also marries, has two kids, builds a studio, starts a label, and promotes his handmade Great Comfort Stuff.
One of his guest players is a multi-instrumentalist named Sufjan Stevens. For
much of the movie, the aspiring singer/songwriter is on stage, banging away on something or other, as they travel across the country and on to Europe. Then, he becomes their opening act (the film features a few of his numbers). Stevens may share Smith's beliefs, but he's considerably more circumspect in interviews and has
a more accessible style (frankly, I love his voice). Smith encourages his friend's efforts, producing and releasing Seven Swans (2004) on his Sounds Familyre label.
Stevens and Smith have a stoop-side chat
In different hands, A Family Movie would be about how Stevens eclipses his
mentor's popularity, as in DIG!, in which the Dandy Warhols leapfrog over the Brian Jonestown Massacre on their way to fame and fortune. Aronson dutifully tracks Sufjan's ascent into the indie-rock stratosphere -- the release of the well received Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003), and then Illinois (2005), which makes numerous top 10 lists and sells hundreds of thousands of copies. It's all there, but Aronson never loses site of his film's true subject: Daniel Smith.
Further, the director never judges. So, is he a Christian, too? He claims he isn't,
but I'm not so sure it matters. Greg Whiteley's more emotionally involving New York Doll, which documents Arthur "Killer" Kane's conversion to Mormonism, could only have been made by a Latter-day Saint in terms of access to Church members, who might have been less comfortable speaking to a non-Mormon. That isn't the case here, although I do wish Aronson had been more rigorous in his questioning.
Though he does include the voices of a few dissenters, Smith comes across
as always calm (except when he's singing), never jealous, and seemingly unconcerned about money. These are universal concerns, and I kept wondering
how he manages to make ends meet while appealing to such a fringe audience.
The irony, of course, is that a lot of people are going to want to see Danielson:
A Family Movie due to the presence of "bit player" Sufjan Stevens. I don't think
that's such a bad thing and, as much as I seriously doubt that he's never harbored
a jealous thought or two about his protégé, I doubt Daniel Smith does either.
"I love my Lord, I love my Lord, I love my Lord."
-- Tell Another Joke at the Ol' Choppin' Block (1997)
-- Smith and the entire Danielson "Famile"
Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise HERE) plays the Northwest Film Forum Dec. 15-21, Fri.-Thurs. at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th
Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.