It seems like almost every Danielson review opens with a disclaimer insisting the reviewer doesn’t hold the same Christian worldview as the band, a point that leader Daniel Smith admits as a major frustration in Danielson: A Family Movie. The reviews then state that despite the Christian message, the music is surprisingly easy to stomach and even enjoyable. The notion that a Christian could make progressive and exciting indie rock is celebrated to a degree that is patronizing and likely insulting.
A Family Movie director JL Aronson clearly takes this into account, because this film is careful and evenhanded. By including interviews from concertgoers as they try to digest the band’s shows and letting Smith clearly explain his motives and intentions, the film manages to present the Danielson Famile without isolating anybody.
It also succeeds because of its variety. By incorporating animation, Super 8, 16 mm and digital video, it never comes off like another boring documentary. Instead, we get a collage of visuals as we watch the band evolve from a thrown-together art-school project to All Tomorrow’s Parties superstars. Along the way, cameos from Daniel Johnston, Steve Albini and Low’s Alan Sparhawk keep things interesting. But it’s Sufjan Stevens who nearly steals the show.
Beginning as a percussionist for their European tour, Stevens’s role in the band rapidly increases, as does his now-legendary solo career. It starts off as an interesting peak into his pre-Michigan career but develops into a full-blown takeover when the film dedicates a lengthy section to the hype caused by Stevens’s 2005 release, Illinois. Danielson’s musical career has been placed in the shadow of Stevens’s in real life, so it’s ironic (and unnecessary) that it would take over a portion of his documentary as well.
Still, Aronson approaches his subject with the same respect as Jem Cohen in Instrument or Sam Jones in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and the film works as a respectful and exciting portrait. Danielson fans will marvel at the sheer amount of footage, and newcomers will enjoy the introduction to this one-of-a-kind collective.