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A Family Movie (Or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)
Director, Producer, Editor: JL Aronson
Shooting format: miniDV with some 16mm, super 8, Dvcam
Starring: Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson, Danielsonship, Sufjuan Stevens
Creative Arson Productions
Dan Smith. Two syllables: a simple name, and not a unique one by any stretch of the imagination. There have been, and are, many Dan Smiths – if you don’t believe me, google away, my friend! Maybe it shows God’s sense of humor that such a complex person has such a simple name. In fact, God’s sense of humor might just be the focal point of this fascinating documentary about one of His children: a son named Daniel, or Danielson …confused? That’s probably a good thing, since all good art should confuse, disorient, and make you curious – and, Danielson: A Family Movie (and I’ll take the liberty of dropping the sub-title for the rest of this review) is also a story about art, and living as a free spirit in a world of conformity. The scene where Danielson (“my solo identity”) is being interviewed on NYC radio sums this up wonderfully, as the host tries to understand why Daniel calls himself “Danielson.” The conversation is almost a ‘who’s on first?’ routine, eventually prompting the question: “So, doesn’t that name imply that you are, in fact, your own son?” Eventually it becomes clear that Daniel considers God the Father over all, and that he (Daniel) is then a son – in other words, Daniel:son. He is defined by his sonship (and that will eventually lead to the super-sized Danielsonship group), and therefore adds ‘son’ to his name.
See what I mean? This is a film about a family, but also about living just outside of the lines. The documentary was shot in a variety of formats, from miniDV to 16 mm film, and keeps the story moving with briskly edited clips, including home movies and concert performances, as well as straight interviews and public appearance footage. Producer/director/editor JL Aronson uses archival images, family photos, voice-over narration, and even cut-paper animation to fill in the story of the evolution of the Smith family, and how Danielson (or, Brother Danielson, as he also is sometimes called as a performer) emerged from New Jersey to become a rock & roll indie cult figure. Aronson smartly allows the quirkiness of his subject to be observed by the viewer without judgment or outside commentary (although he does record comments of people who have just seen performances). We are allowed ‘into’ the family to experience the evolution of what would become a phenomenon that even Danielson can’t quite figure out.
One thing I want to emphasize: this is not a concert film (although there are performances throughout), or even a film strictly about a band, any more than the great documentary, Salesman (which is briefly referenced) is about selling things. This is the story of a family that trusted God and freed themselves from the conventions of the day, and lived life with a child-like point of view. “I want to find the spiritual in the everyday,” says Danielson in one interview. And, so he sets out to Rutgers, where he majors in Art and decides to create a handful of songs to be performed as part of his grad thesis – The Danielson Famile, a performing unit made up of siblings and friends, is born!
We get to see an example of providential unpredictability when Danielson asks a fellow musician and friend to help fill in for a missing band member as the Danielson Famile begins to tour – that friend’s name: Sufjan Stevens. Stevens, of course, would go on to amazing critical success and notoriety on his own, and here we get to see him in a very different context, just before hitting major success, which, ironically, didn’t include (at least not to the same extent) The Danielson Famile. Fortunately, director Aronson was able to record the early stages of the genius of Sufjan Stevens meeting the creativity and daring of Danielson: who can say if either would’ve become fully realized without the other?
In this film there is warmth, insight, humor, art and inspiration. It’s the story of a man leaving the priesthood and seminary to find God, and ending up raising a family that would be free to experience spirituality without the shackles of convention weighing them down, and how a son from that family has impacted his culture.
It’s blatantly, unashamedly Christian – Danielson openly talks about being ‘led’ by the Holy Spirit, and freely refers to his Father throughout the film. It’s about how following God without reservation can get you written up in Rolling Stone.
See it, and ask yourself how free you really are.
Bert Saraco (September