Brandon Vedder’s documentary about Pedro The Lion frontman David Bazan gives an intimate look into the difficulties of being a solo musician on the road in Trump’s America.
To paraphrase James Baldwin, David Bazan loves Christianity more than any other religion in America and, exactly for that reason, he insists on the right to criticize her perpetually.
Bazan is an earnest and hard-working songwriter who found relative popularity with his indie Christian band, Pedro the Lion. Starting in 2015, award-winning documentarian Brandon Vedder followed Bazan around for the better part of two years, editing the footage down to an extremely reasonable 92 minutes for his documentary Strange Negotiations. The film is a motion portrait of Bazan, his music, his relationship with faith, and how those things fit into his life and others in America.
It opens with an over-the-shoulder shot of Bazan driving on a highway in a storm, his eyes framed in the mirror. The sounds of windshield wipers and raindrops fade into the electric intro of “Impermanent Record,” a deep cut from Bazan Monthly Volume 1, a series of singles Bazan released in late 2014.
I was trembling with gooseflesh
First time I prayed to speak in tongues
I saw it coming and I tried to run
But now I make it up as I go along
Bazan shakes his head as the lyrics and fuzzy bass kick in… he sheds a single tear, and starts nodding along. The title splashes before soundbites from an NPR story summarizing Bazan’s career play over footage of Bazan’s earlier, well-attended shows and festival appearances:
“David Bazan was once known as the first crossover Christian indie rock musician. His band… sold hundreds of thousands of records. Then Bazan began questioning the God he sang about, alienating many of his fans. Now he has a new album out under his own name, and recently he went on a solo tour playing living rooms.”
Another correspondent cites descriptions of Bazan’s solo album Curse Your Branches as a breakup with God. We hear these words as we see shots of Bazan on the road, arriving at, and playing in peoples’ houses: “Bazan hopes those who buy it will respect his honesty, in spite of what he might believe.”
In the next scene, Bazan drives while discussing his son’s little league games over speakerphone with his wife. Bazan apologizes to her, and they both exhaustedly say goodbye. Some narrative text on screen tells us: “Ten years and five solo records later, touring remains his only reliable source of income, separating him from his wife and two kids most of each year. This is his 137th day on the road of 2015.” NPR news from Washington chimes in about Donald Trump and Ben Carson being up in the polls as we watch Bazan drive down the road:
“One of the many surprises this election year has been the support Donald Trump has received from conservative evangelical voters in the primaries… Trump met with hundreds of evangelical leaders in Manhattan yesterday and he suggested that they not pray for the country’s current leadership.”
Five minutes into the film, the central themes are laid out. Bazan has his road-intensive music career, derailed by his loss of faith and the loss of his band, and he struggles to balance touring with home life, attempting to find his place in a country that defies the religious values with which he wrestles.
The first half of the film is devoted to fans and their conversations with Bazan during and after his performances. Homes in places like Charleston, Tampa, Charlotte, Sacramento, and Richmond serve not only as concert venues but as forums. Vedder interjects short scenes of Bazan doing radio and podcast interviews. Bazan visibly thinks about the sentiments he expresses throughout, no matter who is addressing him.
Vedder places the loss of Bazan’s faith in a parallel arc with the rise and fall of Pedro the Lion. Using the band’s song “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” from their 2000 LP Winners Never Quit, as a leitmotif, Vedder weaves a fabric of archival footage portraying a younger Bazan, and in turn foreshadows the resurrection of Pedro the Lion by the end of the film.
In the film, Bazan directly relates his move away from Christianity, telling a story of refusing to take communion at church as he realizes that he is divorced from his belief. Vedder juxtaposes this story with a sludgy, feedback-filled Pedro the Lion performance of their 2002 song “Rejoice,” the lyrics of which help underscore the mindset Bazan was in:
Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless
But everything is so meaningful
And most everything turns to shit
After this fall from grace, the film touches on Bazan’s struggle to overcome the alcohol abuse he engaged in as a coping mechanism for the loss of his faith. While Bazan plays the song “Please, Baby, Please,” a 2008 solo track about begging his wife for a drink, we see what’s at stake — the song is juxtaposed with home videos of Bazan’s wife and daughter. Dream-like shots of his daughter and son cut short by the sound of Bazan hanging up a gas pump; he’s still on the road. This simple but effective trick is a tool Vedder uses to show us Bazan’s emotional journey without the need for any lengthy explication.
As Bazan focuses on his family and bringing back Pedro The Lion, the election of Donald Trump is a constant background thread. The conversations at the living room shows become more pointed. At one point, Bazan tells Vedder how he had long believed “the white American Christian Church was not a lost cause,” but the Trump victory has led him to change his mind. He feels evangelical Christians have sacrificed most of their values just to fight for an end to legal abortion in the United States.
“It’s all worth that Supreme Court seat. It represents only abortion to them. And if somebody believes the ends… justify the means… that is idolatry,” he says. “For everything Christians claim to believe, the election… laid bare what they actually believe.”
In 2016, Bazan released his family-themed solo record, Blanco, then went on a 58-city tour. Vedder captures how much he misses his family on that tour, then shows us Bazan’s return to his hometown of Seattle, where he is finally able to attend one of his son’s baseball games. It’s at this point that he realizes that he needed to go back to Pedro The Lion. “I had to return to the process that I knew,” he says. “It was a revelation. It was just like riding a bike. It felt like home.”
At one point while Bazan is on tour, the film intercuts home movies of his daughter learning to ride her bike. In light of these references, it’s worth noting that the first single released from Pedro The Lion’s first reunion album, Phoenix, is “Yellow Bike,” which compares lonely childhood bike rides to the alienation of solo touring. By the end of the film, Bazan is back on tour with Pedro The Lion — alone no more.
Vedder’s documentation of Bazan’s life over the past few years tells an understated yet powerful story, often through juxtapositions of visuals and music that combine to speak more clearly than a heavy-handed narration ever could. The film’s audio track is outstanding, as it should be for any music film; post-production services are ably provided by Skywalker Sound.
If you appreciate carefully crafted film storytelling, I would recommend any of Brandon Vedder’s documentaries, but this one will be particularly essential if you, like me, are a longtime fan of Pedro the Lion.
Strange Negotiations is currently available for rent or purchase from iTunes.
Images from Strange Negotiations
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