By: Gary Goldstein
The release of the documentary “Believer,” which tracks Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds, a lifelong Mormon, as he boldly confronts his church’s deep-rooted lack of acceptance for its LGBTQ brethren, is by design perfectly timed to coincide with Pride Month 2018.
What could not have been planned, however, was just how vital this fine, rousing, often touching film would prove to be due to its spotlight on the leading cause of death for Utah teens: suicide.
Given the recent explosion in our national discourse on the topic of suicide and mental health following the startling deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, “Believer,” directed by Don Argott, now carries even more weight and urgency — and there was much to begin with — than when it first screened in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
Much of the movie’s success, not to mention the reason it exists, rests with Reynolds, an engaging and committed force for equality and enlightenment. But the heterosexual rock star wasn’t exactly born that way. As part of a large, devout Mormon family, he grew up honoring the religion’s often rigid doctrine and, later, spreading its word in his missionary work.
But in more recent years, Reynolds became woke to Mormonism’s intractable — and potentially damaging — stance that homosexuality is a “sin.” His newer, more critical awareness dovetailed in part with the 2008 formation and starry ascendance of Reynolds’ Grammy Award-winning pop-rock band (for the uninitiated: more than 35 million singles sold worldwide), as well as with the Mormon Church’s fervent support of Proposition 8, California’s 2008 anti-same-sex marriage ballot proposition.
The alarming, post-2008 rise in Utah youth suicides after the Mormon Church, as one observer here puts it, “declared war on LGBT people,” also certainly factored into Reynolds’ growing concern.
But it was the influence of his singer-songwriter (and Mormon convert) wife, Aja Volkman, whose best friends, a lesbian couple, refused to attend her 2011 wedding to Reynolds because of the religion’s anti-gay tenets, that seemed to fully galvanize the Imagine Dragons star and inspire him to become a proactive Mormon voice for LGBTQ rights.
(Reynolds and the lively Volkman, who appears throughout the film as a devoted wife, mother and musical partner, announced their divorce in April.)
Argott, whose credits include another strong music-oriented doc, 2011’s “Last Days Here,” absorbingly captures Reynolds’ journey of self-discovery exploring the troubling intersection between Mormonism and the LGBTQ community. Among Reynolds’ deep-dives: visits with the heartbroken parents of gay teens who committed suicide, a talk with an LGBTQ student group near Brigham Young University (the Mormon Church-owned school that’s had a thorny history with the gay community), and an inspiring chat with an out-and-proud 13-year-old Mormon named Savannah and her beaming mom.
Then there are Reynolds’ insightful Skype sessions with clinical psychologist and new-media journalist John Dehlin, who in 2015 was excommunicated from the Mormon Church (which he likens to being condemned “to the Mormon equivalent of hell”) largely, the straight Dehlin believes, because of his gay rights advocacy.
Throughout, Reynolds approaches the range of people and issues he encounters with warmth, candor and earnest support. Yet he also strikes a careful balance by never attacking — and thus not purposely alienating — the church he and his family remain a part of. When considering why he or anyone not wholly supported by the religion don’t just leave the fold in protest, Reynolds asserts, at least for him, that it’s better to stay and work to effect change from within.
Controversial former Mormon policies involving polygamy and second-class status for blacks — and how those views evolved — are also examined as examples of the church’s potential to adjust to the times. But is full fellowship for LGBTQ members a bridge too far for the notably conservative religion? (For now, that’s a yes-
Another vivid musical presence here with a Mormon upbringing is singer Tyler Glenn of the rock band Neon Trees, who came out as gay in 2014. Angered by the church’s retrograde LGBTQ decrees, he soon stopped identifying as Mormon, then went on to record the 2016 solo album “Excommunication” about his experiences with the church.
As recounted here via interviews and archival photos and clips, Glenn’s personal, religious and musical history, like that of Reynolds, neatly contextualizes the film’s larger themes.
Not surprisingly, when Reynolds enlisted fellow traveler Glenn to pool their talents and visibility — in a big, public, noisy way — to jump-start a dialogue between the Mormon Church and the LGBTQ community, Glenn was all in.
And that’s how LoveLoud, the groundbreaking August 2017 music and spoken-word festival (and LGBTQ-charity fundraiser), whose bumpy planning but triumphant execution is stirringly detailed here, came to be.
Still, it took a late-breaking endorsement by the Mormon Church to help surmount local wariness and fill the concert’s venue, a baseball stadium (capacity: 20,000) on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem.
Unfortunately, post-LoveLoud, the church “doubled down” on its edict that being gay was inconsistent with Mormon doctrine, effectively closing a door that the LoveLoud crowd may have thought had finally cracked open. As Reynolds wryly notes here, “A determined Mormon is a scary thing.”
Argott vibrantly captures the highlights of LoveLoud in all its joyously musical and deeply emotional glory. The all-day concert (Dehlin dubs it “Mormon Woodstock”), which is slated to be an annual happening, is seen as an exhilarating mix of the famous and the everyday, younger and older, queer and straight, and Mormon and non-Mormon, as well as a tender tribute to those teens who lost their lives in a tragic struggle between sexuality and faith.
There’s plenty of great music on hand throughout the film as well including versions of Imagine Dragon hits such as “Believer” (the movie’s namesake), “Thunder” and “Radioactive” and Neon Trees’ buoyant tunes, “Everybody Talks” and “Animal.”