'Danielson': The Family That Rocks With God

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006

What to make of a sincere South Jersey indie-rocker who sings God's praises in a squeaky, nails-on-the-chalkboard falsetto while wearing homemade white hospital scrubs, if not a gigantic tree suit bearing the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit?

You make a documentary, of course.

Five years ago, J.L. Aronson set out to make a film about Daniel Smith and his group, the Danielson Famile, a film that would answer some pressing questions about Smith, his idiosyncratic art, his hipster audience, his family and his faith. Only now, with "Danielson: A Family Movie (Or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)" finally arriving at various festivals -- including Silverdocs tonight, with a live Danielson performance to follow -- Aronson says he doesn't remember exactly what those questions were.

"The funny thing about working on a film for so long is that you don't even remember your intentions; it's like why I became a vegetarian when I was 15," says Aronson, who is 32. "People ask me now why I became a vegetarian, and I don't know anymore. I think it might have had something to do with impressing a girl."

That, however, is not why the Brooklyn filmmaker decided to make a documentary about a sometimes bewildering -- but also occasionally brilliant -- singer and his family band. Instead, Aronson says: "I just thought they'd be an interesting movie subject."

Smith had assembled the Danielson Famile in the mid-1990s with four siblings and a friend for a senior thesis project at Rutgers University. Built around intricate arrangements, yelpy vocals, hand claps and atypical instrumentation, the exuberant, childlike music earned Smith an A, as well as something of a cult following.

Aronson saw the art-rock collective perform in New York, and it was quite a sight: Oldest sibling Daniel onstage with his brothers Andrew and David and sisters Megan and Rachel, along with a friend, Chris Palladino, whose black hair stood out among the redheaded Smiths, the six of them sporting homemade nurse's and doctor's outfits (for the healing power) while singing spiritual if somewhat stupefying music that the All Music Guide likens to "Captain Beefheart's Magic Band joined by the Partridge Family at some roadside revival along the Jersey Turnpike." (It is, the guide adds, "definitely an acquired taste.")

"I was not a superfan, but I appreciated what they were doing," Aronson says in an interview from New York. "And Daniel is endlessly fascinating to me. There were a lot of great dynamics, being a family and a music group at the same time. There was also this feeling that Danielson was a novelty act; a lot of people didn't really take the time to get into the symbolism and cosmology, if you will.

"But Daniel is a serious artist who has a lot going on on a lot of different levels; I wanted to explore that. I was also deeply fascinated with the audience. As a New York quote-unquote hipster audience, what's our attraction to this thing that's so viscerally spiritual with a specific idiom in mind, of white American Christianity?"

Or, as Megan Smith says in the movie: "We were working together as a team for the glory of God, to bring truth and light to the places where you wouldn't expect it. I think people were really just curious at first. It seemed odd to them that we were singing about the Lord and His goodness in a bar. They didn't always know what to make of us."

Aronson shot, directed, produced and edited the film, for which he hasn't yet signed a distribution deal. For several years he followed the Danielson Famile at home, at rehearsals and on the road. He spent time with plain old family members, notably Lenny Smith, the clan's musician father, who authored an important modern hymn, "Our God Reigns." Aronson also interviewed other musicians, including Sufjan Stevens, who joined the Famile as a fill-in member and went on to become the indie-rock It Boy of 2005.

His ascension adds an extra layer of tension to "A Family Movie," what with Daniel Smith's acolyte having surpassed him in both critical acclaim and commercial success. In earlier versions of the film, the issue of Stevens vs. Smith just sort of hangs there, like a dark cloud, without any comment from Smith. But Aronson says he recently added footage of Smith discussing his friend's success. (And yes, the two are still very much friends, which Smith confirms in a telephone interview from Arizona, where he's promoting a new album, "Ships," on which his collaborators include . . . Sufjan Stevens.)

There were other mini-dramas, too. The Danielson Famile splintered, with Smith's siblings getting married, starting their own families and businesses, moving on. Smith himself went solo, as Brother Danielson, performing in that tree suit. And as always, he struggled to be understood, occupying the no-man's land between the fringes of the Christian-rock and indie-rock worlds.

"Danielson doesn't really belong to any camp," Aronson says. "I saw Daniel say recently in interviews that he's always been too weird for the Christians and too Christian for the weirdos. I don't know why he didn't say that in the movie!"

The film features exit interviews with various audience members at Danielson Famile shows, and there's no consensus about the music and the musicians and What It All Means, including the prominent spirituality piece.

At a Christian music festival, a young man calls the Danielson Famile act "a weird show," though he adds that it's a weird show in which "Jesus is still represented. I guess. " A woman standing next to him says it's "intriguing" and that "they grow on me."

Outside New York's Knitting Factory, a guy says that he's "really kind of freaked out" by the Danielson Famile, "and I'm in a metal band! . . . They scare me."

A woman at the same show says: "I can see somebody being moved onstage, and I can be moved by them being moved. I don't have to be moved by the same force."

Calling from a tour stop in Arizona, Smith -- who spent nine months telling Aronson to go away before finally greenlighting the project -- gives the documentary a thumbs up, though, he says, it's "only partially" about him. It's also about the Famile's history and, he says, much bigger concepts: "Spirituality, creative community, family, wrestling with your background and your future at the same time, figuring out your identity. I think watching the film, I've learned a lot about this crazy thing I'm doing here. It's helped me boil things down a bit, to be able to take a step back and say what is this art-making process all about."

The latest product of that process is the superlative "Ships," recorded under the moniker Danielson. It may be the crowning achievement of Smith's career and is getting rave reviews to match -- not least a 9.1-point rating from the tastemaking webzine, Pitchfork.

"It's a real arrival point in a lot of ways," Smith says of the album, which seems to have generated more serious coverage than anything he's ever released.

"People often haven't really taken Daniel seriously," Aronson says. "Like, 'Look at these crazy kids playing this crazy music in these crazy nurse costumes!' I think that's changing."

The movie doesn't have anything to do with that, he insists. (It's Smith's creative genius, stupid!)

Or does it? "Maybe when you have a movie about you," Aronson says, "people do take you seriously."

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