If one mode of Sundance documentary is the 10-year labor of love, the culmination of an epic journey of filmmaker and subject, another mode arrives in Park City with the ink still wet on the news headlines. That second mode prioritizes urgency and immediacy, not necessarily over artistry and nuance, but that’s probably sometimes the result.
Believer, a Sundance documentary premiere already set to air on HBO, isn’t just about a concert from August 2017 and it doesn’t just include events from two months later, but the key events in the movie began in 2017 as well. Believer is a documentary sprint, and I guess I understand why. As a movie it’s OK, with very little worth raving about. As a story and message, though, it feels important and worth getting out there in as swift and mainstream a way as possible. Better to inspire some institutional change and maybe save a few lives than to be hailed as art.
Directed by Don Argott, Believer takes its title from an Imagine Dragons song and features Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds as its hero. Last year, Reynolds decided to turn his focus to the dramatic spike in teen suicides in Utah, an epidemic many have tied to the Mormon church’s harsh official positions on same-sex relationships and the impact that has had on LGBTQ youth. Reynolds’ personal crossroads stems from a variety of factors, including gradual recognition of his burgeoning public platform, contact with vulnerable fellow Mormon fans, his marriage to singer Aja Volkman and witnessing the way many Mormons treated Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn when he came out as gay. Reynolds teamed with Glenn to found LoveLoud, a festival aimed at instigating conversations around and support for LGBTQ youth in Utah and in the Mormon community.
As a documentary, Believer exists because of Reynolds’ fame, just as LoveLoud came into being because of Reynolds’ initial inspiration — a phone call to Glenn captured in the doc — and his tireless organization and promotion. If you have clout, this is a good way to use it. Reynolds’ year of self-discovery finds him doing most of the right things, namely going out and listening to as many stories as possible. He visits with heartbroken parents of gay kids who committed suicide, unable to find acceptance in their church. He visits an LGBTQ student organization adjacent to BYU. He meets remarkable people like teenager Savannah, who made it most of the way into her coming-out testimony before a church elder literally cut her microphone. He’s respectful and admiring and constantly telling the people he meets that they’re the real heroes, which is also a reminder that Live Nation Productions isn’t making documentaries about Savannah or the late Stockton Powers or even Tyler Glenn. They’re making a documentary about the straight, rich rock star saving the world.
And none of this is a commentary on Reynolds, who comes across as awkwardly funny and ideologically earnest and utterly in love with Volkman. Their marital interactions, especially with their eerily progressive five-year-old named Arrow and newborn twins, are much more entertaining than Believer probably deserves. Still, Believer could have had 20 percent less Reynolds and 20 percent more of the stories he’s trying to amplify and you’d still have come away thinking the documentary was about this great thing the Imagine Dragons guy decided to do. Or if the documentary had to have this much Dan Reynolds, should I really come away with such basic questions as: What did his very Mormon parents and seven of his siblings (Robert, the eighth of his siblings, was a producer on the movie) think of how he spent his year? And does anybody else in Imagine Dragons get to have an opinion on anything?
Reynolds’ Mormon faith never wavers in the documentary. At all. Probably to a confusing extent. That may help Believer avoid too much pushback. The Mormon church is presented as too frequently forced to catch up with the rest of America on not-so-little things like polygamy and civil rights. A parade of elderly white men saying homophobic things over 40+ years doesn’t help, nor does the reminder of the Mormon backing of Prop 8 in California. There are stories of Mormons being excommunicated for publicly supporting LGBTQ causes and there’s a commercial for Mormon-endorsed so-called “mixed-orientation marriage” that’s just the weirdest thing. But Reynolds is still inclined to give the church credit for some progress. That the church is broken-but-fixable is a common theme when Utah-centric projects play Sundance.
The feeling you’re supposed to have walking out of Believer is one of being inspired by young LGBTQ voices, saddened by the voices silenced too soon, impressed by the constantly praised and adoringly depicted selflessness of Dan Reynolds and hope that things can change. The story is good and important enough that those things come through even if the movie around them is rarely memorable.
Production Company: Live Nation Productions
Director: Don Argott
Producers: Heather Parry, Sheena M. Joyce, Robert Reynolds
Executive Producers: Michael Rapino, Dan Reynolds, Don Argott, Adam Milano, Willie Mercer, Jeff Ciabattarri
Music: Hans Zimmer
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premiere)