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“JL Aronson’s “Danielson: A Family Movie” is a deftly organized profile of Christian indie-rockers the Danielson Famile. Started in the mid ’90s by then college student Daniel Smith with his four siblings, Danielson has struggled for acceptance in the aesthetically conservative CCM community on account of their bizarre live shows—band members perform in nurses’ uniforms and Daniel has been known to sing in a tree costume—and experimental sound (described on Allmusic as Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band crossed with the Partridge Family). Comprising interviews, home videos, and concert footage, Aronson’s evenhanded doc confronts both the wretchedness of much openly Christian art and the lingering prejudice against openly Christian artists, charts the friendship between Daniel and sometime band member Sufjan Stevens during the latter’s meteoric rise to stardom…, and portrays Daniel himself as a lucid eccentric overflowing with creative energy. It’s a delight even for the uninitiated…”
the Stranger (Seattle)
EXCERPT: “You can’t help feeling like if Daniel Smith were just a secular weirdo, he’d have a much bigger audience (his visual art is far more obviously appealing than his music, for a start). As it happens, however, he’s an outsider artist whose outsiderness consists fundamentally of embracing the dominant philosophy of the Western world, and evangelizing it using the arcane language of a weirdo subculture. Elvis had his lascivious hips. Dylan had his electricity. Here’s a rock rebel whose rebellion is the result of faith, imagination, and a stable, encouraging home life. It takes a pretty impressive film not to stumble over such rich contradictions. Danielson observes each one with grace, optimism, and curiosity.”
EXCERPT: “Director JL Aronson’s sweet, respectful documentary on the indie Christian rock group the Danielson Famile hums with the most timely (if not timeless) of questions: How do you negotiate the faith of true believers when you yourself do not believe? ”
EXCERPT: “It’s devilshly hard to capture creativity and convey integrity on film, but [Danielson: a Family Movie] is as poignant a glimpse of the artist’s plight as you’ll ever see.”
the New York Times
EXCERPT: “Often performing with his four siblings and assorted friends as the Danielson Famile, [Daniel Smith] sings in a deliberate fingernail-on-chalkboard voice that’s a very long way from the slick stuff most people associate with Christian rock. Live performances are performance art of a sort: the Famile members dress in nursing uniforms (representative of healing), and as a solo act Mr. Smith (calling himself Brother Danielson) has often dressed as a tree…The film traces the birth and evolution of this odd beast, and once you decide the whole thing is not a put-on, you’re entranced…”
EXCERPT: “Most indie bands don’t make for great doc fodder because they’re so boring. Not the Danielson Famile— a freak-folk collective of devout Christians.”
EXCERPT: “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.”
EXCERPT: “Aronson’s thorough and thoroughly interesting film explains it all and doubles as a primer in all things Danielson.”
“Even when he isn’t dressed as a giant tree bearing the nine fruits of faith, musician Daniel Smith cuts a striking figure. Throughout Danielson: A Family Movie, a loving documentary about Smith’s life and work, the eccentric musician conveys a heartbreaking fragility that suggests a nervous breakdown lurking just around the corner. That breakdown never arrives, and Danielson hints at abundant darkness just beyond the frame without ever veering beyond a respectful distance. God works in mysterious ways, but he has nothing on Smith, who croons Jesus-loving lyrics in an otherworldly, high-pitched, sometimes incomprehensible screech alongside his family, in indie-rock clubs where much of the audience consists of jaded hipsters rubbernecking at the crazy Christians in nurse uniforms and other zany get-ups.
Smith’s life constitutes one long performance-art piece combining art, music, faith, family, and joy. Director J.L. Aronson here chronicles Smith’s unlikely career with an affectionate, low-fi aesthetic clearly modeled after the ingratiatingly homemade vibe of its enterprising subject. Smith’s family members help narrate the proceedings with poignant awkwardness, and some semblance of forward momentum comes in the form of Sufjan Stevens’ ascent from an opening act and musical “pinch-hitter” for the Danielson family into an unlikely superstar. But mostly, Aronson is content to simply drink in the dreamy, twee spectacle of Smith’s uphill campaign to spread joy and win souls for Christ.
Danielson seems to be moving inexorably toward a climactic conflict or crisis that never comes. Instead, it leaves its intrepid hero ambling toward a strange transcendence, a surprisingly satisfying ending for a delicate labor of love about a man living his faith in the strangest of ways.”
“A songwriter leads his family to indie rock stardom, eventually facing the struggles of a solo career and a protege who finds greater commercial success. Danielson: a Family Movie is a joy to watch.”
EXCERPT: “…an engrossing portrayal of a complicated artist giddily toting immense cultural baggage and creating art that seems both damaged and damage-controlled.”
EXCERPT: “Danielson is a refreshingly steady examination of how the Famile functions on both spiritual and practical levels, as members drift in and out, juggling professional and personal obligations with lofty religious and artistic aspirations. Packed with wobbly home videos, early tour footage (check a nervous Sufjan Stevens fumbling with his nurses’ shoes) and post-show interviews with fans, Family Movie examines the Famile’s struggle to disentangle itself from Christian-rock hegemony and to successfully disseminate its message of peace and joy. “We’re too weird for the Christians and too Christian for the weirdoes,” Smith shrugs. “I came from the world of indie rock, but my personal beliefs somehow got me sucked up into this subculture marketplace that I’ve never felt comfortable in.”
Los Angeles Times
EXCERPT: “Aronson’s film is a fond portrait, loaded with bizarre, haunting music and Smith’s off-kilter inspirations.”
EXCERPT: ” “I was struck by how melodic it was, and how it seems sort of like children’s music, with this religious element that is sort of vague and buried in the mix,” says J.L. Aronson, a Brooklyn filmmaker and music industry veteran. Aronson, whose The Danielson Famile Movie is targeted for theatrical release in the spring, says the Danielsons are the most “normal” rock band he’s ever been around. “But what attracts a lot of people – and me – is this mystery about them. What’s fascinating is that all these secular people come out to see a band that is unabashedly proclaiming its devotion to God. The crowd can view it ironically at first, but after a while, you can’t. Because it’s clear that Daniel is serious.” ”
EXCERPT: “The story of Daniel Smith’s life and music is interesting enough, but the way that filmmaker JL Aronson tells it is truly a tribute. Shot, produced and edited by Aronson, the film features footage on miniDV with some 16mm and super 8, with endearing animation interspersed throughout. Aronson’s style of storytelling — through his editing, animation, juxtaposition and different narrative voices — is equally as informative and provocative as the raw documentary footage itself…
“This film is an intriguing meditation on religious missions vs. secular acclaim, artistic vision vs. realization (or, so many ideas, so little time) and the trials of being the unsung inspiration to your ultimately more successful peers. Though it left us with a few questions (Is Daniel a little crazy? Is Sufjan a bit of an opportunist?), it did quench our curiosity about what the fuss was all about. We’ve been inspired to buy Daniel‘s records and great comfort stuff, and do our part to make the fuss a little bit louder.”
What is the best thing about the Danielson movie?
It’s done. No, just kidding. But seriously, it took a long time and I’m still shocked that it’s completed. The best thing about the film is that people have reacted to it in ways I didn’t expect. A lot of artists tell me that the movie made them think deeply about their own struggles with creativity and reception.
What do you think will be most surprising to people who see it?
That the Danielson folk are very genuine, regular-type people. I was almost torn between revealing how regular they are and wanting to maintain the mystique about them, which I think serves them well in many ways. That said, they are different from most of us in that they get along amazingly well with family members and dress in costumes to perform live together, so I think the complexities are better than just the surface in the end.
EXCERPT: “There is an undeniable quirky appeal to the creative world of Daniel Smith, though those who hope a behind-the-scenes look will explain his motivation or personality won’t find the enigma resolved here.”