An atheist walks into a David Bazan documentary...
No, all jokes aside, I've long been both intrigued and intimidated by the mythology surrounding Bazan and his band Pedro the Lion, even though I'm not religious at all. When I bought their debut album It's Hard to Find a Friend in the late '90s, internet access wasn't quite as ubiquitous as it is now, and I wasn't even aware he was a "Christian" musician. I just liked the songs. Knowing what I know now, Bazan's religious doubt was always at the surface:
If this is only a test
I hope that I'm passing
'Cause I'm losing steam
And I still want to trust you
— "Secret of the Easy Yoke", 1998
Born to a Pentecostal pastor and raised in the church, Bazan's early life revolved around religion. Around the time he famously renounced his faith and retired the "Pedro the Lion" moniker, he also fell into a deep depression that he self-medicated with alcohol. As a solo artist, he began touring the country, playing in people's living rooms, which is where the documentary Strange Negotiations takes us. The movie premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival and opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Friday, November 15th, running through Wednesday, November 20th.
Filmed over three years, 7,500 miles, and 35 cities, there is a lot of footage of Bazan behind the wheel of his tour van, frequently (AND DANGEROUSLY) watching videos of his kids at their various after-school sports activities or texting with his wife. Director Brandon Vedder (yes, brother to Eddie) does an excellent job capturing the banality and isolation of life on the road, with vast sweeping vistas of empty, desolate middle America that had me wondering, "How the hell did a small indie film get all these dramatic overhead shots of highways?" But it definitely evokes the feeling of loneliness that (spoiler alert?) leads Bazan back to Pedro.
Vedder also utilizes a lot of uncomfortable close-up shots, where you can see every droplet of sweat on Bazan's bare forehead, every tremble of his lip when he talks about his family. Again, it's a little much, especially when you see the movie on the big screen at a theatre, 'cause whoa. But isn't that true of Bazan's music, where it's so honest and open that it can be kind-of unsettling?
There's more than one thread woven into the narrative of Strange Negotiations: one being Bazan's loss of faith, natch, but the other being his separation from family when he's on the road for 135+ days straight. And then there's a more subtle narrative of the 2016 election and a nation in divide. I saw the film in Michigan, in a relatively conservative city surrounded by many Christian colleges, and I couldn't help but wonder how many believers were in the audience. Every once in a while, the audience would titter about some comment or another that Bazan makes and I'd look around in confusion, like, wait, did I miss something because I don't know the Bible? (I wish I could remember the exact moments in the film that this happened but all I can remember is, he said it while he was driving... which is like 50% of the footage.)
There's some other excellent footage, like of a young Bazan singing in church, performing in-stores, and a behind-the-scenes look at Pedro the Lion's now-infamous appearance at the 2004 Cornerstone Christian Rock Fest that led him to be booted from the grounds. There's another really exceptional scene, but I won't say anything else so it remains a surprise!
“David’s music and fan interactions center around creating a meaningful space for faith, for music, for social and political influence,” Vedder said in a press release. “His journey represents the journey of so many who seek something beyond the veneer of American Christianity, of knee-jerk evangelical political responses, of trite and temporal answers to deep and lingering issues. I believe the film will find an audience eager for that conversation.”
Strange Negotiations will be available digitally via iTunes on 11/19, but don't miss your chance to see it with Bazan himself and the director Brandon Vedder and have that conversation in person. (And for the gigantic close-ups of Bazan's head, 'cause, like, whoa.) And be sure to check out KEXP's Dusty Henry's interview with Vedder and Bazan from 2017!
Strange Negotiations has its theatrical debut in Seattle on 11/15 at the Northwest Film Forum.
DJ John Richards chats with the Seattle songwriter for the inaugural episode of Sound & Vision
Director Brandon Vedder settled in for a long drive, coming home from a shoot. He was in the process of finishing his short film A Certain Kind of Light and had his sensors out for the next story he wanted to tell. He turned on an episode of Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast and heard a famili…