What it's about: Dan Reynolds is the frontman of one of the world's most popular bands, Imagine Dragons, winners of one Grammy, three American Music Awards, and nine Billboard Music Awards. Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Mormon, his faith has long been very important to him. But throughout his life, he's had a hard time justifying the Church's stance on the gay and lesbian community. Now with the profile, resources, and will, he goes on a mission to change the minds of followers, that LGBTQ people aren't sinners and they deserve a place in the Church.
I'm not a fan of Imagine Dragons. I've heard plenty of their songs given their immense popularity and presence throughout popular culture. I have no issues with their art. You could probably call me Imagine Dragons agnostic.
I feared how much Believer would be a puff piece to advertise Imagine Dragons and Dan Reynolds. Certainly, there is a lot of their music in the film -- by informal count, I noted four Imagine Dragons songs about 15 minutes into the film. There isn't much biography of the band, but it does touch on their quick rise to fame. The film is named after an Imagine Dragons song that doesn't have any real descriptive meaning for what the film actually is.
And eventually, Believer becomes just as much a film about a rock concert [one with a message, surely] than the specific issues of its message.
A scene where Reynolds goes through fan e-mails, many from young Mormons who look up to him as one of the few famous pop culture figures that shares their faith. Some of them come out to him as gay, as well, noting their inner struggle. The way Reynolds addresses this with emotion and what seems to be genuine thought, some of those concerns are relieved. Yeah, Believer can't escape being just as much about Reynolds and his band than about the issues, but it proves to come from the right place.
Another figure who is profiled in the documentary is Tyler Glenn, the frontman of another popular pop band, Neon Trees. Glenn was also raised Mormon and, unlike Reynolds, is openly gay. Listening to him talk about his story is immediately more complicated and resonant. I understand why a film was made following Reynolds instead of Glenn and I'm glad that Glenn's story was told, but it creates a strange imbalance.
Seeing Reynolds call Glenn to talk about the issue [Glenn is not seen on camera during this scene] crystallizes that Believer is Reynolds's story. An LGBTQ film focused on an ally is fine. It can be a valuable story to tell. But only as a supplement to the first-person stories on the subject.
So my thoughts on Believer are complicated. It talks about incredibly important issues, such as appalling Mormon teen suicide rates that coincided with the introduction of Prop 8. The stories of people coming out within the Mormon church are heard [with Reynolds intently listening face shown with shot-reverse-shot].
But telling this story in this way certainly has its drawbacks. Believer has an uphill battle to prove that it isn't the kind of puff piece that many will assume going in. I can absolutely see some viewers being completely turned off by the film's structure, not able to get past any focus on Reynolds and his band. We see Reynolds write new songs, organize a music festival for his band to perform in Utah, there is a countdown leading up to the festival and how many tickets have been sold. Most egregiously, there is a scene where Reynolds accepts an award for his LGBTQ activism, so it is a little hard to dispute the film doesn't do any self-promoting back-patting.
Would Believer have more impact if it was simply a film about the relationship between LDS and LGBTQ? All the same stories, all the same statistics, without the [for lack of a better word] gimmick of Reynolds's own journey. Maybe Reynolds would be just another of the talking heads sharing their experience. It might not be totally fair, but yes, I think so.
The "Music By" credit for Hans Zimmer, shown over concert performance of Imagine Dragons, I assume wasn't a joke, but was funny.
Streaming from my HBO Now app, preceding Believer was a montage/trailer of important gay characters from HBO shows and movies, from Looking, Six Feet Under, The Normal Heart, Game of Thrones, Girls, and many, many more. Though it was totally self-serving, it was pretty cool to see the context of dozens of LGBTQ characters and moments that have been such a big part of the entertainment platform for more than two decades.