The question of how faith and rock music can co-exist has always been a knotty one, solved or not solved in the most idiosyncratic ways—from Dylan’s Christian albums, to Johnny Cash’s gospel to Reverend Al Green’s oscillation between the secular and the divine. Still, few musicians have approached the problem with quite as much boundless zest and goodwill as Danielson Famile’s Daniel Smith, a man so secure in his worldview that he’s willing to wear a tree costume and sing about god’s love before skeptics and hipsters in America’s grottiest clubs. A word about the tree costume: it’s adorned with nine different kinds of fruit, symbolizing the nine fruits of the holy spirit (love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).
Like his contemporaries David Eugene Edwards and Sufjan Stevens (both of whom figure in this documentary), Smith seems very little bothered by the contradiction, if there is a contradiction at all. In the opening sequence to Danielson: A Family Movie, an interview segment with author Rick Moody, Smith explains, “To me I’m just trying to write about my life. So that’s going to include trying to find the spiritual in the everyday, in the journey of life and trying to pick these moments where the natural and supernatural connect.”
And yet while Smith and his brothers and sisters seem utterly comfortable with their place in God’s creation and the indie rock world, their audiences are not. One of the main themes of this engaging documentary is the varying degree of queasiness secular music lovers feel when they learn that, hey, here’s an overtly Christian fundamentalist band that they actually kind of like. At one point, talking to Steve Albini, who produced some of the Danielson Famile albums, Smith points out that nearly every review of his band begins with a paragraph or two of background about the author’s religious background (or lack of it), and their feelings about evangelical Christianity. Wryly Smith observes, “I never read a review of a reggae record that says, I don’t believe in this Rastafarian stuff, but it’s a great record.”
That maybe the greatest strength of Danielson: A Family Movie, that is, that it brings us so squarely into Smith’s world. It’s an attractive world, with warm family relationships, raucous music practice sessions and abundant, welcoming communal dinners. Indeed, it starts to seem normal, even desirable. It’s the sort of place where God’s love permits all kinds of innocent pleasures, from goofing around with your siblings on glockenspiel and guitar, to careening through Europe singing the New Jersey State song, to making eccentric wearable art, like blinders that prevent you from ogling bare flesh at the beach. It is, more relevantly, the sort of world where it makes perfect sense to don nursing costumes and squawk raspy, percussive God pop, with refrains like “Love us, love us,” or “I love my Lord.”
The movie takes us through the very beginning of Danielson Famile, the senior thesis project Daniel Smith created in 1993 with his brothers and sisters, which became A Prayer for Every Hour. There’s some lovely footage of the whole family in metal folding chairs, sister Megan plunking out rhythms on a xylophone, very young David Smith thwacking out snare drum rhythms. We later see what must have been the art students’ reception, with svelte, sophisticated girls holding drinks and the Smith family, conservatively dressed and short-haired, wandering among the exhibits, teenaged David clearly puzzled.
We learn about the Smith family’s eccentric religious background, the father a seminar student, the mother also closely connected to the church, married and “always searching for that perfect connection”to a church, and often holding services at home. At one point Daniel Smith leaves home to join Jepusa, a religious community outside, Chicago; one of the band’s first gigs was a Christian festival in Southern Illinois. The band gets a break in the secular world when Daniel Smith asks a producer named Cramer to produce the band’s next album, and he agrees. They begin to play more “real” clubs. There is footage of Danielson Famile leading a chorus of “The First Noel” in what is obviously a bar.
People come and go in the band. The girls, Rachel and Megan, leave to be married. Stevens steps on for a European tour because one of the younger Smiths can’t take off school. A childhood friend, Chris Palladino, is recruited by phone while he’s cleaning toilets at a midwestern summer camp. “But I don’t play bass,” Palladino objects. “That’s okay,” says Daniel. As the Smith children begin to get married, their spouses join in, Elin Smith, Daniel’s wife, plays violin, as does Melissa who marries Chris. There’s an inescapable sense of warmth and welcome in all the footage of family members. The music is intense and joyful, full of drums and chants and movement. The family members seem like they could not be happier than they are doing what they’re doing, shaking tambourines and banging drums and swaying modestly to anarchically joyful beats.
And yet, though they are clearly happy, they are outsiders, both to the indie rock world and to the Christian one. Stevens does a low-key interview with the Smith’s parents, sitting at a dining room table with them as they leaf through press clippings. At one point, the father, Lee Smith, remarks, “I was a bit surprised by the fact that the Christian music industry has not given him the time of day. I felt that by now they would have warmed up to them.” His wife answers, “I wasn’t surprised by that at all.”
The documentary is sprinkled with fan interviews (there are more in the bonus features), where young people of both sexes talk about their own religious background and how comfortable or uncomfortable they feel with Smith’s message. They range from purely secular music fans (“I realized we were singing about Jesus – and that was weird because we’re Jewish”) to disaffected Christians to practicing Christians. But all of them have to relate Danielson Famile’s religious message to their own lives and experiences. It’s hard to relate to it purely as music.
And still, the music is remarkable, on its own terms and as a theatrical experience incorporating costumes and props and dancing. There’s a gentleness, an inclusiveness, to the band’s interaction with other people. One of the nicest things about the film is watching Stevens evolve from a fill-in drummer getting his first nurse’s uniform (which stands for the healing power of music), to the auteur of Illinois performing “Chicago” to a large and appreciative audience. There’s no ego contest in the film or among the performers. Everyone seems genuinely, unconflictedly positive about their friend’s success.
So, in a way, Danielson: A Family Movie paints a picture of an ideal Christianity, the sort of religion where people really do love one another, and where music is just another way to express appreciation for a loving god. That so many of us are skeptical about such a religion is our problem. Daniel Smith asks us just to relax and enjoy this place he’s created.
The bonus features seem, mostly, to be unused footage from the main movie – more and longer interviews with fans, longer footage of the individual family members, scenes from the Danielson Famile’s ordinary life, even bowling at one point. All these extra scenes reinforce the message, but don’t change it. At least in this instance, God’s love is working the way it’s supposed to, supporting love and creativity and human happiness.