Philly Fest Report: Danielson, A Family Movie Review
Full disclosure time: I've known Danielson's Dan Smith for many years now. Though we see each other so seldom these days that calling him a friend feels like over selling the relationship he is certainly more than an acquaintance and the summer we lived in close quarters looms large in this film, that being the summer Dan signed his first record deal and met the woman who is now his wife. So ... objectivity? Forget about it. Not even a remote possibility.
The title spelling of J.L. Aronson's film is an important tip as to what Aronson is up to with his film. Note going in that this is a 'Family' movie, and not a 'Famile' one, and that is an important distinction. This is not a film about Dan Smith the musician so much, not a film particularly concerned with the mechanics of the music industry and Smith's place within it, but a film about Dan himself, his family, friends, and the beliefs that drive is art. So it is less a typical rock-doc than it is a family portrait, a film cobbled together with more family video than typical interview footage.
An indie rock cult figure Dan Smith rose to prominence with his band, The Danielson Famile, originally a performance art thesis project that found Dan and his siblings - it is a literal family - dressed in home made nurses uniforms singing off kilter, blatantly Christian themed songs in bars and clubs across America and, eventually, around the world. Smith has baffled both the Christian and secular worlds for better than a decade now but, unlike most 'curiosity' acts he simply refuses to go away, continuing to find fans of all religious stripes. With his film Aronson tries to give a glimpse into what makes the man tick.
The film has been a lengthy, organic process, with Aronson building his collection of footage for over five years, time spent building a close relationship with the Smith family, and that relationship pays off with some remarkably candid conversations and access to a wealth of childhood footage and information about Smith. In the early going we get basic biographical information and a good amount of candid reactions from audience members of all stripes, some entranced, some baffled, and some openly dismissive of Smith's work. As the film progresses we get recollections from the other members of the band and comments from some of Dan's famous peers, friends and fans - Steve Albini, Low's Alan Sparhawk and Daniel Johnston all make appearances - with frequent collaborator and current indie darling Sufjan Stevens gradually taking a prominent role in the proceedings. By the close the camer is firmly on Smith himself and this is where the time spent buidling a trusting relationship pays off large, with Smith giving full access to himself, his family, and proving a remarkably open interview.
Much like Smith's music, the film is an organic, somewhat sloppy affair, following its own internal logic and often taking unexpected turns and occassionally frustrating expectations. There are some key figures unrepresented here - where's record producer Kramer, for example, or Dan's in-laws in like minded indie rock act Soul Junk - while others, Sufjan primarily, are arguably over-represented. From an informational standpoint there are definite gaps throughout, but the film gives a very good look at the man himself and the ideology that drives him. Smith is a truly unique artist and this gives an inside look into his life, his art, his faith, and his creative process. A labor of love from a fan of his work the film will likely find the most traction with other fans, but it is a frequently fascinating look at an American original.