Danielson: A Family Movie by J.l. Aronson (Review)

It’s an inspiring vision of the way music could be, of the way music perhaps should be — especially in Christian circles.
Danielson: A Family Movie, J.L. Aronson

One of the more amazing and intriguing concert experiences I’ve ever had took place at a sidestage during the 1998 Cornerstone Festival. It was late at night, and my friends and I had skipped out on M.C. Hammer(!)‘s main stage performance to catch a couple of Cornerstone oddballs: Soul-Junk and the Danielson Famile.

The power kept cutting out from time to time, and so at one point, Soul-Junk started pulling people up from the crowd to breakdance onstage. When the power inevitably cut out during the Famile’s set, the band kept on playing, the passion and quirkiness of their music overcoming any technical difficulties and quickly becoming one of the most invigorating experiences of the fest that year.

In the following years, the Famile’s Cornerstone sets became must-see events for us. Sure, there was the off-kilter nature of it all — a band composed of brothers and sisters decked out in nurse uniforms and led by a guy singing in a most grating falsetto — that set it apart. But even more importantly was the amazing passion and even joy that they brought to their music, such that even the most hardened punk kids and metalheads could be found dancing, smiling, and praising during a Danielson Famile set.

All of these memories and impressions came rushing back while watching J.L. Aronson’s 2006 documentary, Danielson: A Family Movie.

The movie begins with the Danielson Famile — originally formed by Daniel Smith for his senior’s thesis project at Rutgers — preparing to play at England’s influential All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. It’s a watershed moment for a group that has spent years toiling in relative obscurity in both the Christian and secular music markets, thanks to their decidedly non-commercial and idiosyncratic music.

However, the festival also signifies a time of transition as well. As the band members go off to college, get married, and start families of their own, the band’s future becomes increasingly uncertain.

During this portion of the film, Daniel Smith seems largely on the periphery. Instead, the focus is on his siblings (both real and honorary) as they share their memories of the band’s past as well as thoughts on its future. An approach that, while somewhat unsatisfying on a purely informational level, also lends Danielson’s first half a certain elegiac quality, as if we’re hearing the members’ fond farewells to long roadtrips and hours spent playing in both church basements and seedy bars.

The second half of the film picks up after All Tomorrow’s Parties, and finds Smith on his own, struggling to figure out where to go now that the Famile is on extended hiatus. He embarks on solo tours (with a then-unknown Sufjan Stevens as the opening act). He tries to come up with new artistic expressions, be it dressing up as a giant tree or turning his concerts into traveling salesman presentations. He builds a recording studio in his parents’ basement, and begins producing records for himself and friends.

It’s at this point where we begin to get a better glimpse of Daniel Smith, the man and artist. The film becomes something more than just a chronicle of yet another odd band and its quirky leader. Instead, it becomes an intriguing examination of an artist seeking the best and most creative ways to blend his art and spirituality, to brush aside any separation between the two.

The Christianity of Smith (and the rest of the Famile) is an obvious talking point of the film, largely because they do absolutely nothing to hide their faith and the role it plays in their music. Clips of Smith explaining his spirituality to interviewers and radio DJs make up much of the film, as do “hipster on the street” interviews.

During these latter segments, fans of the band — many of them not Christian — attempt to reconcile their love for Smith’s music with the fact that he is a born-again Christian whose faith is very evident in the music. These provide some of the most humorous moments in the film, as well as some of the most poignant.

In one particularly memorable scene, which is thankfully fleshed out more in the DVD’s special features, a woman confesses that her critical attitude towards the band has nothing to do with their Christianity, but rather with her own anger towards the Church due to her childhood experiences.

But the scenes that prove most affecting for me are those where Smith, sans Famile, works to find his way during the band’s separation. He outlines for the camera his approach to songwriting — one where he claims the Holy Spirit plays as great a role in the creative process as himself, if not even greater. And yet, at the same time, we never see Smith just sitting back, waiting for divine inspiration to strike. Instead, he’s constantly busy in the studio, recording songs over and over again, going back and fixing mistakes, and working on new recording techniques.

It’s this dichotomy between the spiritual lens through which Smith sees his music, and the often-mundane activities that are involved in realizing the music (which, given the sparsity of Smith’s studio, have an almost monastic quality to them) that I find most fascinating.

We Christians tend to over-spiritualize our musicians, as if they’re not mere mortals but rather some manner of demigod capable of opening a direct line to the Almighty. Watching Smith muddle through the recording process, flubbing his lines and singing the wrong melodies, or watching him discuss his latest performance ideas with his wife, thoroughly blows that hyper-spiritual image out of the water.

And yet, as Smith outlines his creative process, and discusses his views on art with radio interviewers, fans, and even uber-producer Steve Albini, it’s obvious that Smith approaches his art in a completely holistic manner that is both refreshing and awe-inspiring. There is no divide between the secular and the sacred, the mundane and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural.

It’s an inspiring vision of the way music could be, of the way music perhaps should be — especially in Christian circles. For many years, I resisted and railed against the Christian music industry, which I often found to be hopelessly clichéd, stodgy, and dull. I was seeking after music with depth, passion, and creativity. The industry, or at least most of it, seemed more interested in churning out the same old “three cheers for Jesus” dreck album after album, year after year.

I’ve somewhat mellowed on that particular attitude, due in large part to artists such as Sufjan Stevens, David Eugene Edwards, Jason and Ronnie Martin, Rosie Thomas, Denison Witmer, Ester Drang, and of course, Smith and the rest of the Famile.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie takes place right before the band’s All Tomorrow’s Parties performance. Smith is talking with Steve Albini, who had picked the Famile to play at the festival, and the two are discussing music and faith. At one point, Smith lays out a vision of sorts for what a truly “Christian” music industry would look like. It sounds almost hopelessly naive, but at the same time, both incredibly alluring and incredibly convicting. It may be just a dream, but it’s not a bad dream to have. Not a bad dream at all.

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