Director: Brandon Vedder
Runtime: 91 minutes
David Bazan is not what you picture when describing the life of a rock star. For starters the Pacific Northwest native who since 1995 has recorded music as both Pedro The Lion and under his own name drives himself to gigs, which are increasingly not in rock clubs but in people’s homes. This is how the new film Strange Negotiations begins and ends, with Bazan behind the wheel of his Mazda minivan – processing his 24-year career in the music business, the family he spends so many of days away from, and the faith that has played a central role throughout.
In the film, which premiered recently at the SXSW Film Festival, we meet Bazan and learn of his dual existence as indie-rock troubadour and former Christian rock anti-hero. Through archival NPR radio interviews, early fan footage, on-stage interviews from various events and podcasts and lots of time driving the interstates of the United States, we learn quickly that Bazan has very strong opinions about music, politics and the role they play in the context of Evangelical Christian faith in America. The latter of which being a tribe Bazan at one time very much belonged to.
Bazan’s faith, and at times lack thereof, is the lens through which filmmaker Brandon Vedder chooses to focus Strange Negotiations. It’s an apt vehicle by which to examine the challenges of being both an independent musician balancing career and family, and an artist whose identity is intertwined with a particular religious tradition.
Bazan grew up in the church. He explains the Assemblies of God tradition that raised him and fueled his early identity as a musician and songwriter. We see footage of a young David Bazan earnestly leading worship, along with the early years of Pedro the Lion breaking into the music scene. The band was embraced by an audience of Christian youth looking for something more interesting than what they were finding on religious radio stations and bookstores.
But Bazan’s world-view evolved as the years went on and the thornier questions about life began to poke through. In the film, it’s Trump’s nomination and eventual rise to the presidency that was the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back. We watch as the long straight roads he’s been driving start to twist and slant in their perspective from overhead. It is a smart and artistic visual representation of the panic and doubt that are taking root in Bazan’s own psyche.
Bazan turned to alcohol in order to cope with the never-ending rigor of road life, and the unraveling of the faith that had once been his underpinning. But even in his darkest moments, Bazan continues to have hope. It is clearly his family who provide balance to the irrationality of driving one-self across the country in a mini-van filled with guitars and vinyl records for the majority of each year. Vedder’s touch as a filmmaker is most evident in these scenes, where Bazan is wrestling with this tension and the demons that continue to plague him.
Now on the other side of his addiction, Bazan and the film both find resolution through the reformation of his long-time band, Pedro the Lion after a more than 10-year gap. The band provides a new identity for Bazan – with other musicians now carrying some of the musical load – and a new beginning for him as musician, father and husband. As for the community of fans that still practice the faith Bazan once ascribed to, they are still there too – attending house shows, and filling the clubs the band is back to playing. The burden of his past may be evident, but Strange Negotiations ends with Bazan optimistic about the future of his music, his family and even our country.
Strange Negotiations is seeking distribution for release and Pedro The Lion is currently on tour.
-Written by AP