At first glance, one could mistake "Danielson:
A Family Movie (or Make a Joyful Noise Here)," for a "This
is Spinal Tap"-type mock-umentary.
After all, it is a little hard to believe a group of siblings cheerfully performing innovative, Christian music at indie rock clubs, while wearing outrageous costumes, could be real.
But the tight-knit group of five brothers and sisters and assorted friends and spouses known as the Danielson Famile really exists and is actually quite successful, having recorded five albums over a little more than a decade and touring the world performing songs like "We Don’t Say Shut Up," "Fetch the Compass Kids," "Rallying the Dominoes," "Who the Hello," "Farmers Serve the Waiters," "Ye Olde Battleax" and "Quest for Thrills."
Daniel Smith, the band’s songwriter and lead singer, has also gone on to record the solo album, "Brother is to Son," under the name Brother Danielson, and Smith most recently collaborated under the name Danielson with numerous other musicians - such as Deerhoof, Sufjan Stevens, and Sereena-Maneesh - for the ambitious album, "Ships."
In his new film, Fort Greene filmmaker J.L. Aronson offers a fascinating look into how the ground-breaking, faith-based New Jersey band has brought its message to a secular audience. "Danielson," which began a limited engagement in Manhattan on Friday, also explores why they wear those bizarre doctors’, nurses’ and tree costumes on stage; how the siblings function as a creative unit and as a family; how Smith has embarked on a respectable solo career after his siblings’ break from the business and while his friend and one-time fellow band member, Stevens, who lives in Kensington, finds more mainstream success.
Starting with original footage he shot during his four years following the band, the 32-year-old filmmaker, who previously helmed the documentaries "Senior Picture" and "Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke," also skillfully weaves in home movies, concert clips, animation and interviews with Smith and his family, as well as the adoring and confounded club-goers who turn out for their shows, to illustrate how the band has evolved since its creation in 1994.
"A good documentarian is always looking for a good subject, and I was familiar with the band from having worked and been in the downtown [Manhattan] music scene," Aronson told GO Brooklyn in a recent phone interview. "I was just fascinated as, I think anyone who comes across them is, because they are so different from anything else in the music scene."
Aronson says it is not the group’s distinctive sound, Christian messages or homemade nurse’s uniforms that make them so different from other bands; it is how unabashedly real they are.
"They are so authentic that I think people are confused and often scared by how authentic they are," he observed. "There are lots of people who dress up in uniforms and often it comes with a sense of irony or just like a business plan, ’We are going to present this image to the world and maybe there is going to be some symbolism in our stage presence and we’re going to invent a kind of cosmology.’ "
The filmmaker, formerly the marketing director for the Knitting Factory, emphasizes that Smith is not an "outsider artist" who is naive about the music business or how his family band presents itself will affect its popularity. For instance, Smith says in the film that the band wears nurse uniforms in honor of the healing power of God, suggesting it should not be seen as a clever marketing device. The tree costume Smith sometimes wears on stage is meant to represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
"It really comes from a deep place, and they all are really into it," Aronson noted. "What fascinated me was as much them and that aspect of who they are."
Another facet of the family group that intrigued Aronson was how they performed their faith-based music in rock clubs, not just in churches or other venues where the audiences already shared their religious point of view. For example, the record release party for "Ships" took place at Williamsburg’s Northsix club last May, not in a house of worship.
"I think most bands want to share their music with as many people as possible, and they were fortunate enough they found a secular audience that was receptive to what they were doing," he said, adding that the film also allowed him the opportunity to consider how pop culture and religious faith interact.
"I was interested in exploring what it means to be a family and also a creative unit, and I guess I wanted to challenge people’s assumptions about spiritual people and about Christians."
Aronson says he did not think it was necessary to spend too much time elaborating on what the family’s specific beliefs were. In the film, the family talks about visiting churches of various Christian denominations while they were growing up, and Smith says his songs are faith-based because his faith is so important to him.
"I think showing how they manifest their beliefs through their creativity was enough," Aronson reasoned. "That is who they are. In many ways, Daniel regards the band as being his ministry."
And, yet, he has no desire to play the preacher like some other Christian performers.
"Daniel sees himself as sort of telling stories about his own life and perhaps inspiring people by example, but that is not by far not his first priority," he said.
Crisis of faith
While Smith is usually depicted in the film as a performer with unwavering vision, confidence and faith in what he is doing, there are moments towards the end when his siblings go off to start families of their own and focus on other careers where we see some doubts about his own future arise.
"That was the crisis for him, and he didn’t know what would come next," Aronson recalled. "As he says from the film, he wanted to write these songs from a solo perspective, but he didn’t know what would come out. He didn’t know if anything would come out. What is amazing is that he consistently comes up with really odd ideas that sound impractical and then he just makes them happen."
Given how close-knit the family is and how the band’s performance style could be exploited as a curiosity, it is no wonder it was a little leery of Aronson when he approached the members about five years ago and told them he wanted to make a film about them. For the better part of a year, Aronson discussed his plans with mutual friends and developed a rapport with the band’s enigmatic leader.
"I think a lot of people have approached them over the years, maybe not with this idea in particular, but with large projects that just don’t pan out, and they didn’t want to give their time to something that wasn’t really going to happen," he offered.
After he gained the family’s trust, and they established some ground rules (like no filming the band members while they actually worshipped in church), Aronson started shooting in March 2002 and kept going until Smith launched "Ships" earlier this year.
Asked if he was able to maintain a sense of detachment while spending so much time over the years with his subjects, Aronson replied, "I don’t really believe too strongly in documentary distance. I think that any filmmaker has to befriend their subjects and as long as, at the end of the day, it’s clear what the nature of the relationship, is ... I always say Daniel and I have a really great friendship, but at the end of the day, we’re business partners. We never lose sight of that. My business is to make a film about him, and his investment in that business is having him and his family and his art come off well."
"Danielson: A Family Movie (or
Make a Joyful Noise Here)" is being shown now through Dec.
21 at Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St. between E. 12th and W. 12th
streets in Manhattan). For screening times and ticket information,
call (212) 924-3363 or visit the Web site www.cinema