Danielson Famile: Growing Up Godly

After completing 2001 documentary Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke, JL Aronson was ready to tackle another project. He’d seen the Danielson Famile—resplendent in their typical concert garb of vintage nurses’ uniforms—perform around New York. He was intrigued how a band of siblings from rural South Jersey who write clever and eccentric songs about the joys of a Christian life appealed to the indie-music cognoscenti.

“I felt that a lot of people approached them with an ironic stance,” says Aronson, a 32-year-old Brooklyn-based filmmaker. “I wanted to know why an audience that seemed to be coming from an agnostic, secular place would be interested in shelling out money to see a band of religious outsiders.”

In spring 2001, Aronson presented the idea to bandleader Daniel Smith. “I tried to make him go away, to be honest,” says Smith with a laugh. “It was nothing personal. I didn’t know him. The idea of bringing cameras into our home life, which I’m very protective of … Well, I just didn’t like the idea, certainly not with someone I didn’t have a relationship with. Our whole band is based on relationships. So I kept trying to ignore him.”

Mutual friends brought the two sides together. Danielson: A Family Movie (Or, Make A Joyful Noise Here) has been a hit on the festival circuit, and a limited theatrical release is expected later this year.

The film brims with enjoyable, insightful moments, including plentiful concert performances, home videos and scenes of a happy Smith clan enjoying family get-togethers. There’s footage from 1994 of Smith’s senior thesis project at Rutgers University, where he assembled his siblings (the youngest being 10) for a musical performance. This performance was the basis for the band’s first album, 1996’s A Prayer For Every Hour, which showcases its inventive music and Smith’s distinctive, high-pitched yelp.

Most interesting is watching Smith at work, painstakingly piecing together his random thoughts and ideas into cohesive pop songs. Eventually, his siblings go on with their own lives, starting families on the West Coast or attending college, leaving Smith to stage a solo career—under the moniker Danielson—while questioning his musical future. (Danielson’s latest album, Ships, was released in May.) The inclusion of Sufjan Stevens—who has played drums for the Famile and is something of a Smith protégé—gives A Family Movie another compelling angle. Stevens’ ascension in the musical world is a stark contrast to Smith’s modest success.

“Since Sufjan came to the band only shortly before I did, he was still asking questions about what the experience of growing up Danielson was all about—the kind of questions a documentarian would ask,” says Aronson. “So I thought of him as being my alter ego in a sense to show how tightly knit the family was. But it wasn’t until later on, when Sufjan’s career started to gain momentum, that I realized he wasn’t my alter ego but Daniel’s. They’re very much alike in a few crucial ways … but so different in other ways. It was only natural that they would be received differently in the music world.”

Aronson originally intended to spend one year on the project, focusing on the band’s fans. While fan reaction is a component of A Family Movie, many other themes emerged during the four-plus years Aronson spent with Smith, his two brothers and two sisters and other longtime family friends. Aronson delves into Christian faith vs. pop culture, underground music vs. financial gain and family vs. individuality.

“They were all very welcoming, and they can’t believe I didn’t give up on them,” says Aronson, who recalls a comment made in jest by one of Smith’s brothers after the first year of filming: “You’re still here?”

—John Elsasser