J.L. Aronson on 'Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)'
On Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)
When I ask what faith, if any, Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker J.L. Aronson follows, there's zero hesitation before he answers. "I'm a Rastafarian," he confides, and then, "No, I'm not. Just kidding. I've been a practicing on-and-off Buddhist since I was a teenager. I have an open mind. I take it all in."
It's not the standard line of inquiry vis-à-vis filmmaker phoners, but in Aronson's case, the tack is notable. As the man behind the film Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here), Aronson spent five years delving into the history of the odd, fanciful, and supremely interesting Christian indie outfit Danielson Family, led by helium-voiced frontman Daniel Smith and a revolving door comprising his siblings and, on occasion, the more recent indie-pop darling Sufjan Stevens.
With their jangly, chorus-filled, and sporadically atonal compositions and sporting homemade doctors' and nurses' uniforms, Danielson Family can come off as a novelty act pitched somewhere between Jad Fair and Amy Grant, with backing by the New Christie Minstrels had they been infiltrated and surreptitiously sandbagged by the Polyphonic Spree. For audiences Christian and otherwise unfamiliar with the group's heartfelt albeit obscure modus operandi, Danielson Family can be downright bizarre going. But hang in there: Aronson's thorough and thoroughly interesting film explains it all and doubles as a primer in all things Danielson.
"I tried not to have too many assumptions about them going in," explains Aronson, who heard his first earful of the joyful noisters via a CMJ giveaway disc, "but the main one I did have was that, you know, they present this kind of image on stage where the women are almost like wind-up dolls, and no one really speaks on stage. Daniel might tell you what song they were playing, but he didn't really talk too much, in part because he realized that things could easily be taken out of context. The big surprise was that they are all really smart and funny they have a great sense of humor about themselves and what they're doing."
Which, of course, is key to surviving and thriving in both indie rock and its more penitent persuasions. Nothing coagulates a fan base like a bleeding heart, least of all one that badgers them to hammer on their own personal crown of thorns. Here's blood in your eye, kids! Not so with Danielson.
"Ultimately," Aronson says, "I just felt that what Daniel was doing was a really good package overall. Reading their album art, you quickly surmise that, because there's a whole cosmology. And any artist that is able to build up a whole world in support of their art or in support of whatever it is they're promoting, be it David Lynch or Danielson Family, is, I think, worth investigating further. And so I did the film, so I could tell their story to people who may have been mediating the experience of Danielson through an ironic lens."
Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here) is playing at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. For showtimes, see Film Listings, p.90.