In 2016 Seattle musician David Bazan released Dark Sacred Night, an almost comically morose Christmas album. Even “Jingle Bells” borders on a folk dirge. The album ends with a phone ringing, interrupting “Wish My Kids Were Here,” a lonesome country tune. On the line is Bazan’s daughter. When he says, “Merry Christmas,” his voice aches.
That ache suffuses Strange Negotiations, a new documentary on Bazan, screening at Northwest Film Forum for a week this fall. The movie was shot largely as he toured the country in 2016. But a winding road brought him there. Bazan grew up in evangelical churches. In the 1990s his Christian band, Pedro the Lion, made an unlikely secular crossover. Yet as its popularity grew, so did Bazan’s doubt. Eventually, he left religion and began touring and releasing records under his own name. It supported his family but he spent most of his time on the road.
Much of Strange Negotiations watches Bazan driving down American freeways and playing shows in people’s living rooms—clearly a source of therapy for him and the audiences. “Are you surprised that people who are religious are still very big fans of you? Does that bother you?” one audience member asks early in the film.
“No, I care about what happens with Christianity. I want it to get better. I want it to stop shitting the bed so consistently.”
This is Bazan: melancholy and contemplative, to the degree that the film may test how much handwringing you can watch. And director Brandon Vedder’s treatment of Bazan’s struggle is sometimes overwrought, in particular a montage that intercuts Bazan, staring into the camera and weeping, with an aerial shot of a church. Behind it he sings, “Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless.” What saves the film, though, is Bazan himself—disarmingly vulnerable as he struggles to reckon with his religious past.
But there’s a turn. Last year, he began playing as Pedro the Lion again. This year, he released an album, Phoenix, under that moniker, a sort of homecoming. Bazan was raised in Phoenix, Arizona. But returning to the name has also been a way of returning to Pedro’s popularity—and to his family. Near the documentary’s end, during a show at the Tractor Tavern, someone asks, “Are you going to do more living room shows?”
“It will be a minute,” Bazan says. “Because we’re trying to do a thing where I make a slightly better living and stay home more.”
► Strange Negotiations, Nov 15–20, Northwest Film Forum, $13
► Pedro the Lion, Sept 7, Neumos, $23