A most peculiar act even among often willfully eccentric indie-rock fringe-dwellers, the Danielson Famile has been around for a dozen years, yet continues to confound listeners curious whether it’s for real or a put-on. Providing evidence toward verdict No. 1 is JL Aronson’s agreeable “Danielson: A Family Movie.” While the docu will appeal — or best make sense — to those already familiar with the subject, fests looking for esoteric fun might bite, as well as specialized DVD and theatrical distribs. Helmer is offering both 96- and 110-minute edits, with the eventual final version likely to fall somewhere between.
Oddball leader/visionary Daniel Smith formed the “Famile” by gathering his rural-Jersey-bred siblings — who’d performed at Christian gatherings as children — to collaborate on a musical aspect of his art-school graduation project. Thus was born a unique sound whose shrill unison vocals, primitive instrumentation, singsong melodies and chanted choruses suggest the soundtrack to a kindergarten riot. Yet the lyrics are often about Jesus, God and morality.
That combination was far too strange to attract the musically conservative fans of contempo Christian pop. Indie rock types, on the other hand, embraced it while regarding the religious content with suspicion. Admittedly, the Famile was easily misunderstood as a prank, considering their stage costumes (doctor and nurse uniforms, the better to convey a “healing mood”), campy choreography and Daniel’s tantrum-on-helium vocals.
But Smith and Famile were having fun for the Lord, not at His expense. Several albums ensued, some produced by cult luminaries like Steve Albini, and extensive touring earned a devoted following.
When marriage and children made group activities difficult, Daniel turned toward other projects, including performing solo and recording other musicians in his home studio.
Among the latter is Sufjan Stevens, the wunderkind whose solo efforts (“Come On Feel the Illinoise” was 2005’s indie sales and critical sensation) have by now eclipsed Smith’s work. Hearing Stevens’ often stunningly beautiful music alongside Smith’s has the unfortunate if unintended effect of making the latter’s seem amateurish.
Still, there is an undeniable quirky appeal to the creative world of Daniel Smith, though those who hope a behind-the-scenes look will explain his motivation or personality won’t find the enigma resolved here.
Occasionally a tad rambling and unstructured (even in its shorter version), docu nonetheless entertainingly mixes performance and interview footage shot over the years, in numerous formats. Some brief bits of simple animation add to the fondly hand-crafted feel.