Praising Jesus to Make Music to Praise Jesus To

[I wrote this a while ago, but never posted it. I’m not sure why, I was just never happy with how it turned out. However, I thought I would continue my tradition of ending a blog sabbatical with a Danielson post, so here it is. — S.]

I’ve been meaning to write a review of the Danielson documentary for a few months now. Danielson has been my number one favorite band for the past year, and so I was quite excited to watch the film and see a little bit of what band leader Daniel Smith, who I really think is a musical and artistic genius, is all about. It documents the band’s history up to the release of 2006’s breakthrough album Ships. The band is unique and the personalities fascinating enough that I believe it’s a good movie even for people who aren’t as familiar or abjectly fawningly in love with Danielson’s music as I am, and it raises a lot of worthwhile issues about art and religion and what it means to be successful.

In one of the interviews, Daniel Smith is asked what irritates him about critics reviewing Danielson records, and his answer is that the writer always feels the need to spend the first half of the review on disclaimers about religion: “I’m not a Christian, but…”, like a mantra to justify their objectivity with respect to the music. He correctly points out that critics review reggae records without prefacing it with “I’m not Rasta, but…”. I’m not an alcoholic, but I listen to country. I’m not a complete douche, but I listen to Coldplay. Ha ha just kidding! I don’t listen to Coldplay. But I do share this desire to add exculpatory disclaimers when I say things like “I’m really into this Christian rock band…”.It’s a problem because “Christian rock” is such an apt description, but has a lot of amply justified prejudice to live down. So it’s kind of his own fault that he inherits a lot of the indie scene’s general suspicion of Christian™ music, which is so much horrible pablum. The mainstream evangelist labels that are hostile to Danielson are essentially factories for mass-producing kitsch according to very precise specifications, who have no context at all for perfect, psychedelic pop tunes. His message may be Jesus, but his medium is pure John Lennon.

It’s clear that Daniel’s father, a folk musician himself, is irked by the reaction of the Christian music community, and it really is a massive indictment of their collective aesthetic taste. But then, this is the same community that chows down on Left Behind like it was palatable, so, you know, not exactly news I guess.

Daniel Smith is eager to share with interviewers the religious inspiration for the music; when asked about his creative process, he always responds that he doesn’t take credit for his art, he just “points to the creator.” Several times throughout the film, Smith repeats some variation on “It all comes from the Creator of music, the Creator of all everything. We just let Him speak and try not to get in the way.” He compares his relationship to his creative output to that of a young child helping his father fix a car — he’s not really helping, he’s just there, having fun, feeling useful, more in the way than anything else. It’s a little difficult for an atheist to engage with Smith about his process. Fortunately for me, we’re living in the postmodern era and I have no trouble sidelining any authorial privilege over interpretation, so I have no compunction about offering an alternate explanation: that Smith is a genius and, therefore, also a little crazy. Much like another crazy songwriting prodigy, Daniel Johnston, who was the subject of his own doc, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, who’s craziness also tends toward religious fervor. Though in his case well beyond Smith’s wholesome eccentricity, tending rather more towards dangerous psychotic breakdowns. Also unlike Smith, Johnston’s story is a tragic one, though not only for his failure to achieve mainstream success, but for his failure to develop as an artist. At the end of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he’s still playing the same songs and drawing the same child-like cartoons of Jesus and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

I found the interactions between the two Daniels one of the more interesting scenes, because it was the one time that Smith seemed uncomfortable. Both are preternaturally gifted songwriters and “outsider” artists who struggle for mainstream acceptance. The focus in the latter half of Make a Joyful Noise Here is on Smith’s attempt to push forward and redefine himself with his music and art, without the Famile. Towards the end, director J.L. Aronson is able to get a little deeper into Smith’s actual writing process, which Smith understandably has difficulty articulating. One thing he said really struck me as a very true expression of the creative process: that mostly what he does is wait for different ideas and images to “start pointing to each other.” This is a frustrating and mysterious process that nobody really understands or controls, and that seems to me like pretty much everything that can be intelligently said about it.

Sufjan has his own little chapter in the movie, and we see him hesitantly learning to play the cowbell, taking brother Andrew’s place on their European festival show, and opening for Brother Danielson at tiny clubs in front of eight people. However, I felt like the Sufjan portions were sort of beside the point for the film as a whole, and would have been better left as DVD extras, keeping the film a bit more focussed on the perspective of the family. The film is separated into chapters narrated by each of the family/band members, which gave a very personal and intimate touch to the production; Sufjan’s section is a departure from this. I mean, it’s clear why they chose to focus on him, he’s a huge star now. I just felt like it wandered a little too far from the focus and theme of the rest of the film.

The doc ends on a triumphant note, first with the recording of the amazing Brother Danielson record, and then the critically-acclaimed Ships, which brought together everyone who has ever contributed to a Danielson Famile recording, and provides a bookend to Smith’s long-term three-part vision of Danielson Famile/Brother Danielson/Danielsonship. I really can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

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