The first of many interesting things about Daniel Smith—who performs (in elaborate theatrical costumes) with his fellow Christian brothers, sisters, and friends as Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson, and other noms de guerre—is that his music is aggressively devotional (“the creator and being creative go hand in hand,” he tells a DJ), but within the aesthetic conventions of weirdo, left-field indie rock. Danielson’s records are genuinely bizarre: they evoke a rusted old jack-in-the-box full of Beach Boys singles, marching band paraphernalia, and rusted pennywhistles—only when you crank the handle, Jesus pops out. It’s tremendously spirited music, often beautiful, and just a little disturbing. In short, a tough sell for both mainstream Christian-music listeners, who can’t get past the singing, and indie rockers, who gag on the Christ.
This is not to say Danielson doesn’t have a following; he and his siblings blazed a trail in the early ’90s, when there was little precedent for explicitly Christian voices in the indie underground—especially not for non-hardcore bands, and double especially not for art-project bands that dressed up in nurses’ uniforms and offered sing-alongs and hand jive to call upon the Holy Spirit. Much of this history is lovingly captured here in the form of shaky camcorder and home-movie footage. There is a Danielson audience. It’s just small, and unlikely to grow. (“Why does he sing like that?” an audience member asks the camera after a show. Why, indeed?)
Enter Sufjan Stevens, a Christian singer-songwriter and Danielson protégé whose blinding physical beauty and soothing folk melodies have made him a big star, endearing him to believers and non-believers alike. Stevens’s wacky onstage theatrics, which have earned him the reverence of a grateful indie nation, are directly inspired by (not to say stolen from) Danielson, in whose Famile Stevens was a loyal sideman, serving on several tours. We see Sufjan lurking behind drums, joking humorlessly backstage at Danielson shows, and generally waiting his turn. When it comes, in the form of a song called “To Be Alone With You,” the movie at last becomes dramatic; the whispered conviction, gentle guitar picking, and artful, obvious metaphor of Stevens’ song takes all the freaky music we’ve heard thus far to school. By contrast, the Danielson stuff sounds like spazzy glossolalia: no less devout, no less inspired, just less appealing, and to fewer people.
Sufjan’s sudden rise to glory—again, aided by techniques that blow everyone’s mind when he does them, but which bemused and alienated people in Smith’s hands—puts this documentary in rare company. His apprenticeship with Danielson Famile hardly rates as Dylan opening for Joan Baez in ’65, but the trope remains the same. Stevens and Smith are obviously close, and share a lot of the same devotional impulses, but that kind of divergent success is a difficult moment for any friendship. The film observes the shifts cautiously, never shrinking from noting that the big difference between them is that one is a holy fool with a voice like a tin kazoo and the other looks and sings like an angel.
By film’s end, Stevens rides a team of white stallions down the broad boulevard of critical and popular acclaim, while Smith is held in tableau, recording his own vocals in his basement studio all alone. His devotion is both humble and inspiring, but it’s also got a tragic dimension—especially if you’re not a believer. You can’t help feeling like if Daniel Smith were just a secular weirdo, he’d have a much bigger audience (his visual art is far more obviously appealing than his music, for a start). As it happens, however, he’s an outsider artist whose outsiderness consists fundamentally of embracing the dominant philosophy of the Western world, and evangelizing it using the arcane language of a weirdo subculture. Elvis had his lascivious hips. Dylan had his electricity. Here’s a rock rebel whose rebellion is the result of faith, imagination, and a stable, encouraging home life. It takes a pretty impressive film not to stumble over such rich contradictions. Danielson observes each one with grace, optimism, and curiosity.