Danielson: A Family Movie Review

A man dressed like a tree stands in a field playing the guitar under a cloud containing the movie's title. Bananas, cherries, and other fruit hang from the tree's green leaves.
AKA: Danielson: A Family Movie {or, make a Joyful Noise here}

Genre: Music Documentary
Year Released: 2006
Distributor: Home Video Entertainment/Image

Origin: USA/Canada
Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13

Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music?, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, A Light in the Darkness
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Daniel Smith (lead singer/guitarist of Danielson) owns two record labels. Sounds Familyre and Great Comfort Records. Some of the artists affiliated with those labels include Wovenhand, I Was a King, and Steven Taylor & The Perfect Foil.

-Some of the members of Danielson have produced albums or collaborated with musicians such as mewithoutYou, Lauryn Peacock, and Joshua Stamper on some of their songs.

-Danielson was initially signed to Tooth and Nail Records which is the same label who discovered bands such as Underoath, Anberlin, P.O.D., Pedro the Lion, Hawk Nelson, and many more. Even founder/CEO Brandon Ebel makes a cameo.


It’s not every day where you see a band that rocks out with matching nurse uniforms, use a lead singer who does Mickey Mouse-like falsetto voices, or use non-rock instruments such as flutes, violins, glockenspiels, washboards, or even utilizing two drummers at once.

Even that doesn’t fully describe the musical weirdness that is Danielson AKA Danielson Famile (yes, that’s how it’s spelled).

This experimental band based in the rural unincorporated town of Clarksboro, New Jersey has been around since 1994 and are still active to this day. It started as a college thesis project from Daniel Smith and his siblings creating some bizarre unclassifiable music that has Christian undertones in many of the lyrics. Unlike other so-called Christian bands, they play several secular venues including bars and they have (and still) play shows with secular artists. Just don’t expect these guys and girls to open for Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant anytime soon.The documentary focuses on them in the early 00s as they are touring and get invited to All Tomorrow’s Parties (a huge festival based in England) that was curated at that time by Steve Albini of Shellac fame. There’s some older footage and photos mixed in for some “flashbacks” and some audience reactions from some of their shows with some people genuinely liking their music or not getting into it. One interviewee was in a metal band and he thought Danielson was “scary”. I had to laugh at that since that guy was intimidated by a band wearing nurses outfits and play off-kilter music that isn’t heavy at all.

Some of the interviews with the band members were fascinating, but the best ones involved Daniel Smith and a certain famous musician (more on that later). The best interview segments were when Daniel and Steve Albini were talking about issues with the Christian music scene. Daniel talks about that aforementioned scene being an “inbred subculture” with how they only cater to Christians and sacrifice creativity for an in-your-face message about Jesus.

THANK YOU, DANIEL!

Someone needed to say that, and I thought it was awesome how he had integrity. Even Steve Albini, an open atheist agreed with him and added onto his point by saying how Christian bands co-opt trends and genres by saying things such as “[context: Christian ska bands saying] Pick it up…for the Lord!” or “We’re going to do a surf song…for the Lord!”. That was a godsend (no pun intended) seeing people addressing that issue. The radio interview scenes were complementary to that where Daniel talked about how his faith integrates with his music and art while not being a part of the Christian music scene. The props such as the nurse uniforms are a metaphor for God’s healing while in his solo shows where he wears a giant tree suit with nine fruits on top represents the Fruit of the Spirit. I liked the abstract take on certain elements of his faith.

The only other person who steals the show in this documentary was a session member who played drums while one of Daniel’s brothers was still in school. That man was none other than a then-unknown Sufjan Stevens. Yes, you read that correctly. Sufjan Stevens shows up a lot in Danielson: A Family Movie and that band helped him get more attention. He has some funny anecdotes and I thought it was hilarious when he made a bet with one of the bandmates on not messing up some notes. It was surreal seeing some moments where he opened for Brother Danielson’s (Daniel’s solo project) sets in small clubs especially since he’s been selling out big venues for over a decade now.

While this documentary has likable things in it, there are some flaws that prevent me from giving it very high marks. Some of the animated scenes felt really cheap. The stop-motion scenes were great though. Also, there isn’t a lot of conflict in this documentary. There’s a few minor arguments, and there’s one part of the story where Elin Smith (Daniel’s wife/bandmate) meets and marries him, but they blow past that in a few seconds. Elin is a Norwegian woman who’s parents didn’t want her to marry an American, but they never give any scenes with that issue despite a scene where you see them and their daughter together at their place. The last 20 minutes of the film meanders a bit despite showing the stuff at Sounds Familyre Records or the Good Comfort Stuff exhibition. 

In addition to those things, I can definitely see this as something geared towards Danielson and Sufjan Stevens fans. Both of those fanbases will definitely get a kick out of this documentary. They also do some pandering with some of the cameos. The Steve Albini one was important given the All Tomorrow’s Parties scenes, but they throw in Alan Sparhawk (lead singer/guitarist of Low), Brandon Ebel, Half-Handed Cloud, The Singing Mechanic, and even Daniel Johnston makes an appearance late in the film. While it was cool to see the two Daniels in the same room, I didn’t see what the overall point was. Also, the Christianity aspects, while certainly atypical from what would be considered Christian music, can be off-putting at times for people who don’t care about religion or faith. One litmus test when it comes to Danielson’s music is their song “Did I Step on Your Trumpet?” which is their most “straightforward” song. If you like it, you might like this documentary, if not, then you’ll want to stay away. Danielson isn’t a band that one can be just okay with.

Danielson: A Family Movie is certainly a quirky music documentary. While there is a good amount of depth, I feel that fans of that band may appreciate it more on principle. Some people who are into weirder forms of music might give this a try. There are good points made with the concept of faith and art or even what qualifies as success to someone. This is a good watch, but it’s not for everyone.


Adjustable Point System:

Add 2-3 points if you’re a Danielson or Sufjan Stevens fan
Subtract 3 points if you can’t stand theology being discussed in films

Pros:
-Quality arguments for not sacrificing art for a message
-Funny, yet meaningful interview segments
-Great stop-motion sequences in the titles and some in-between segments

Cons:

-Flash animation was lacking
-Lack of conflict
-Some cameos came across as hipster lip-service

Final Score: 7/10 points



Content Warnings: There are some swear words including one metalhead dropping an f-bomb in describing Danielson’s music, but that’s the only real objectionable thing. Danielson: A Family Movie brings up Christianity given the band’s belief, but don’t expect this to be sold at a Christian bookstore given some of the language and the completely non-mainstream music they make.

-Curtis Monroe

Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

2 comments

  1. I’d be interested to hear more of Danielson’s philosophy on art and faith if only to discuss it at length. It’s long been a struggle of mine to know where the balancing point lies.

    Like

    • This documentary does a great job with that and I agree a lot with what the lead singer Daniel Smith had to say. If you want to pitch this movie at a church event, I think it would be a great conversation starter.

      Like

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