8. Road movie
May 17th, 2020

Strange Negotiations
(File under: movies, documentaries, david bazan, pedro the lion)

Watch trailer: youtu.be/VvyrzDb7XWE

One of the earliest shows I saw after moving to the US in 2011 was David Bazan playing a stranger’s living room in Oakland. At that point I was still green enough in the Bay Area that navigating from San Francisco to the Ashby BART felt daunting, to say nothing of getting back to the city afterwards. I went alone, crept into the suburbs, and sat rapt on a hardwood floor with maybe thirty others as Bazan played in the golden hour light of a spring evening. I remember the sun had set by the time he played a song called ‘Cold Beer & Cigarettes’, and that I was thankful the room was lit exclusively by a small desk lamp, as it meant nobody could see how misty I’d gotten. Outside after the show I shook his hand and bought vinyl from the back of his van, and as I walked back to the station I thought of myself ten years earlier, brown corduroys and Robert Plant hair, sat behind my rusted Pearl Export kit listening to Control on repeat and trying to learn its monstrous drums.

All this came back to me as I watched Strange Negotiations, a documentary about Bazan from 2019 that covers his career in the years 2015–2016 as he continued to play these solo living room shows, and eventually started performing and recording music under his old moniker Pedro the Lion. It’s a road movie in the most literal sense—overhead drone footage traces his van weaving through countless American cities, while dash-mounted cameras capture the face of a person trying to reconcile art, family, and faith, often while also trying to find parking.

Bazan is the son of evangelical Christians, and much of his music has always been about wrestling with that upbringing in the face of modern Christianity. What I’ve always admired is that this process happens in full view of his fans, often in kitchens and living rooms, or in impromptu Q&As inserted into his setlist. I came to his music through indie-rock as opposed to through Christianity, but I’ve always found his relationship with faith fascinating. Having heard his records navigate from grim piety to creeping dissatisfaction and outright renouncement, I felt a comfort and a familiarity in that Oakland living room at a time when I felt very far from everyone and everything I knew.

In some ways, it’s a hard sell of a film if you’re not already familiar with Bazan’s music. It’s shot through with sadness, it asks knotty questions and refuses to answer them neatly, and it’s haunted throughout by the shadow of the 2016 Presidential election. But the footage of those house shows, the faces of fans looking up from the floor, and the sheer force of Bazan’s smile returning from those tours to hang with his kids is worth the price of admission alone.

Dept. of Enthusiasm is a weekly email from me, Jez Burrows. You can read some past issues, or sign up below.