(Above, The Danielson Famile in 1997 [L-R]: Andrew Smith, David Smith, Rachel Smith Galloway, Megan Smith Slaboda, Chris Palladino and Daniel Smith. Photo by Marian Smith.)
JL Aronson’s documentary, Danielson: A Family Movie, premiered at the New York Underground Film Festival around the same time Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston shot into Manhattan theaters, gracing New York audiences with two outsider-art biopics that inadvertently asked the same big question: when art overlaps with legend, is it more about the man or the myth?
Daniel Smith, ringleader for psych-rock circus the Danielson Famile, is one of independent music’s most compelling mythic figureheads: over the course of a decade-long career, Smith has squirmed into a full-size tree suit (strumming his acoustic through holes cut in the trunk), assumed the persona of a traveling Bible salesman (complete with tie and briefcase) and dressed himself and his family-band in matching homemade nurses uniforms—all while shrieking clever, beguiling stories about God, faith and love. Understandably intrigued by Danielson’s legend, as well as his relationship with his fans (and his siblings-turned-bandmates), Brooklyn-based filmmaker JL Aronson began work on Danielson: A Family Movie in March 2002.
Shot mostly on digital video, Family Movie 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.”
A COURTSHIP DANCE
“[The music] was so fascinating and strange that it immediately invited mythmaking,” Aronson says. “And I was just as fascinated by his audience. Why these people who, by and large, seemed to be typical New York hipsters—and that can mean a lot of things about their background—[why] these ironic atheists?” he says, laughing. “What drew this audience to this strange spiritual music? Was it the urge to connect to a transcendent experience that a lot of us can’t connect with because we’ve been turned off by religion?”
Unsurprisingly, Smith was wary of Aronson’s filmic intentions. “Daniel was hesitant [to participate] at first,” Aronson explains. “They’re a private bunch. They like to do things organically—they use friends of friends.”
“I didn’t know him at all, so I kept dodging him, trying to make him go away,” Smith admits. “[I was uncomfortable with] the idea of a stranger trying to bring cameras into what is, believe it or not, a very private home. Eventually I was doing some recording with [producer Mark] Kramer, who knew JL. And Kramer said ‘He’s a good guy, you can trust him.’ And that was the first step.”
“We both had ideas about what the movie was going to be and what it wasn’t going to be,” Aronson explains. “He didn’t want it to be some kind of exposé about family fights. And I didn’t really want it to be that, either. What I was interested in was the relationship between artist and audience. And of course what it means to be a family and also a musical group.”
“It’s difficult to be yourself when you’re looking out of the corner of your eye and there’s a camera there,” Smith offers. “But I was very happy with how the film turned out. It forced me to think about this chaos that I do, maybe take a step back and try to make sense of it.”
“They’re so colorful and fascinating,” Aronson nods. “They’re so real.”