As a teenager, Dan Reynolds already had doubts about his faith. A decade before hitting the pop mainstream as the singer for Imagine Dragons, he was writing songs about his conflicts with religion and was uneasy witnessing the struggle of his gay friends to live openly within the Mormon community.
“It was hard to watch them have to hide, and go to dances with girls and not live their truths,” says Reynolds, 30, who was raised within a conservative Mormon family in Las Vegas and remains a member of the church. “It was the first time I felt that religion was doing harm.”
Reynolds has regrets about those days, he says, mainly for not actively reaching out as “a true ally to my friends when they needed it most.” His awakening is now at the center of “Believer,” a documentary that begins airing Monday on HBO and follows the singer’s evolution from uncertain observer to determined activist.
The film, produced by Live Nation Productions, premiered in January at Sundance, in Park City, Utah, home state to the Mormon Church, and began a short theatrical run last week in select cities.
During the course of “Believer,” directed by Don Argott, Reynolds is brought to tears reading messages from fans and other LGBT adolescents that describe the pain of rejection within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He meets with the parents of a teenage boy who committed suicide, and he speaks with psychologist John Dehlin, a sixth-generation Mormon who was excommunicated in 2015 for his activism on this issue.
During a radio interview shown in the documentary, Reynolds says, “I don’t feel a need to denounce Mormonism. I do feel a need as a Mormon to speak out against things that are hurting people.”
For the last year, the singer has faced the issue head on, actively working to shift attitudes toward LGBT youth within the Mormon community, where leadership currently welcomes gay and lesbian members as long as they remain celibate or marry into a heterosexual relationship. He shares his alarm over the staggering suicide rate among youth (ages 10 to 17) in Utah, which is growing four times faster than the national average, according to a 2017 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’m tired of people telling me the increased rate of suicide in Utah is because of the altitude. The altitude isn’t changing.” Reynolds says, sounding exasperated in a phone interview. “If the leaders of the church aren’t going to change the doctrine, then the culture needs to change. That’s the goal.”
Early in “Believer,” Reynolds reaches out in an emotional phone call to a fellow Mormon hit-maker, Tyler Glenn of the Neon Trees, who came out as gay in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone and has left the church. Both had been missionaries, and Reynolds remembers hearing a mix tape of Glenn’s songs being passed around.
“As a missionary, you’re only allowed to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” Reynolds says with a chuckle. An exception was made for Glenn’s mix tape of songs, since it was the music of another missionary. “There was so much heart in it that I felt like I knew him before I knew him.”
After their missions ended, both ended up in Provo, Utah, and they became friends through the music scene. “I did feel like Tyler was battling some serious demons,” Reynolds recalls. “I knew him enough to know that he was super Mormon: he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink coffee. He was a really good missionary. Finally, he’d had enough.”
Glenn had hoped to reconcile his sexuality with his faith but eventually grew disheartened and recorded a scathing solo album that distanced himself from the church. But he welcomed the call last year from Reynolds, and together they began planning a 2017 music festival in Utah called LoveLoud. Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees would headline a full day of music and testimonials in support of LGBT youth and inclusion in the Mormon community.
The struggle to make the festival a reality in Utah provides a tense subplot in “Believer,” as the two rock singers face the prospect of failure. In the end, a statement of support from the church for the LoveLoud concert led to a full house of 20,000 on Aug. 26, 2017, at Utah Valley University’s ballpark.
Without hinting at any change in doctrine, the statement read, in part: “We applaud the LoveLoud Festival for LGBTQ Youth’s aim to bring people together to address teen safety and to express respect and love for all of God’s children.” Reynolds sees it as a beginning to a long conversation.
The documentary takes its title from last year’s Imagine Dragons hit song of the same name with lyrics that begin: “First things first: I’ma say all the words inside my head / I'm fired up and tired of the way that things have been...”
On record and onstage, the tune is a big thundering pop production, with a catchy sing-along chorus. But late in the film, Reynolds sings “Believer” alone in the studio with an acoustic guitar, turning the song into something raw and personal while facing Argott’s camera. “That song is about feeling free to express yourself,” Reynolds says now, “regardless of who it hurts, and to speak your truth.”
Argott began shooting with the singer in April 2017, planning mainly to document eccentric performers on Fremont Street in Vegas. That germ of an idea was sidetracked as the filmmaker began asking Reynolds about his life and the discussions turned inward. Late one night, Argott was in his rented house in town when the phone rang. It was Reynolds, who insisted on seeing him immediately.
Argott rushed over and captured a moment of personal revelation for Reynolds. “He basically broke down and had this realization that he’d identified this issue he had with Mormonism,” says Argott, “and it became crystal clear what he had to do: He had to use his platform to speak out.”
Some of the warmest and most playful moments in the film come when Reynolds is grappling with planning the concert at home, interacting with his wife, singer Aja Volkman, and their baby daughters. Their marriage has since ended, but Reynolds credits her with being an essential influence on his becoming active.
“She’s been taking this road a long time before me,” Reynolds says.
There are also repercussions for challenging the Mormon culture to change, says Reynolds. “I’ve literally had emails from people saying, ‘You’re making more kids gay,’” he adds. “I have family members who are really upset with me. That’s painful. That’s my home, and the people I love most.”
For Glenn, some consequences have been positive. He’s currently performing in his Broadway debut, costarring in the musical “Kinky Boots.” Living in Manhattan, and within the theater community, means the singer is in a place where his sexuality isn’t an issue. He still feels a pull, though, toward his spiritual roots.
“Sometimes it’s lonely, I’ll be honest. I sometimes gravitate towards anyone that speaks even a little bit of the language of coming from religion,” says Glenn, who also finds comfort in the signs for Pride Month displayed openly in most store windows. “You can’t help but stop and be grateful that we’re at a place where those walls have been taken down. It is cool.”
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)