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Quirky but comfortable in his skin

Christian musician Daniel Smith and some family members are featured in a documentary.

January 19, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Straight-spined, upbeat and resembling a young Dave Foley, devout Christian Daniel Smith seems every bit the boy next door until he climbs into his tree costume and starts playing guitar and delivering his unique devotional music. Smith is something rare indeed: a truly original artist who's perfectly at home with his eccentricities and family.

Smith's irresistible creative urges are the subject of "Danielson: A Family Movie," a documentary by J.L. Aronson. While in college, the affable but driven Smith drafts his younger brothers and sisters into a makeshift band to perform for his thesis. The "Danielson Famile" (pronounced "family"), as the performing group is called, gets on harmoniously and stays together to record several albums, combining elements of the Beach Boys circa "Smile" with the alt-wackiness of experimental heroes the Residents and Deerhoof. It's melodic avant-garde psychedelic devotional folk-rock. Yep.

And it's strangely compelling. The idiosyncratic Smith says he's looking for "where the natural and supernatural connect." Apparently that's a weird -- but fun and surprisingly listenable -- place. His vocals, often reaching into the upper ranges of nasal squeals, recall Jack White and Yoko Ono. He often seems to be speaking in tongues (which frequently renders lyrics unintelligible). Some believers might brittlely declare, unconvincingly, that they're "high on God" -- Smith never has to say it.

Shunned by the Christian music establishment, the group goes the independent route and draws listeners of varied spiritual stripes. Many interviewed say they are not Christian but are drawn by the Famile's uniqueness and passion. "I'm kind of freaked out by them," says one smiling fan, "and I'm in a metal band. They scare me."

Also a visual artist, Smith directs the Famile to perform in clean white doctors' and nurses' outfits to symbolize the "healing power of the Word." Playing solo as "Brother Danielson," he dons a massive tree costume (bearing the nine fruits of the spirit, he explains). He never moralizes and seems nonplused as his artistic vehicles change shape over the years, some members leaving and some gaining success beyond his.

Aronson's film is a fond portrait, loaded with bizarre, haunting music and Smith's off-kilter inspirations. While the movie begins with a sprinkle of odd visuals, matching Smith's quirky energy, it seems to run out of gas, dragging badly at times. However, one doesn't often come across a figure as original as Smith, whose upright happiness doesn't seem to be a put-on.

"Danielson: A Family Movie." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.

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