D Tour opens with the familiar trappings of a band-on-the-road movie–we meet drummer Pat Spurgeon in the practice space, tweaking his drumset as his band, SF indie-heroes Rogue Wave, prepares to set off on tour. Well into middle age and sporting a riotous caucausian ‘fro, Spurgeon is the picture of a friendly, articulate indie musician, talking earnestly about how his lack of a “back-up plan” keeps him committed to his musical dream.
Having shrugged off penury and failure in the past, Spurgeon finally feels at home in Rogue Wave, poised to hit the big time with their clever, catchy indie-pop. Suddenly, however, he is devastated by news of the worse kind: His kidney is failing.Â Diagnosed with kidney problems as a child, Spurgeon received a transplant some fifteen years ago, allowing him to live his life in comparative stability.Â Now, the first replacement kidney is no longer working, and he will need a new transplant, landing him on a donor list some six years long. He’s about to leave on the biggest tour of his life, and he will need dialysis, up to four times a day.
Spurgeon’s human story is an affecting one, and sensitive, understated direction by his friend Jim Granato provides an unfettered view into the life of the quietly charismatic skinsman. His bandmates, initially torn between supporting their ailing drummer and continuing their tour, seem both relieved and incredulous at Spurgeon’s plan to use a process called “peritoneal dialysis” on the road. As the band packs up the van, two journeys begin, one a familiar quest for recognition on the nation’s club circuit, the other an unlikely search for an organ donor.
As the film goes on, its purview subtly expands. Though scenes continue to center around Spurgeon and his circle of friends, bandmates, and supporters, thematic undercurrents subtly but persistently constellate the issues that inform the subject’s plight, including organ donation, chronic illness, and health insurance. The footage, cobbled together from segments shot by Granato, Rogue Wave bassist Evan Farrell, Spurgeon himself, and various archival and found sources, is deftly concatenated and edited, presenting the viewer with wrenching emotion and thought-provoking allusion without ever being overbearing or weepy. A starkly presented scene of the dialysis process, with all its attendant frustrations, risks, and ignominies, proves immensely powerful.
By the end, this expansion reaches an affecting apex. Spurgeon gets a serendipitous donation, a near-perfect kidney from a tragically deceased Arizona teenager. It is around this same time that his bandmate Farrell, a perceptive and witty commentator through much of the film, dies in a house fire, the pain and grief mitigated only by the donation of his organs to grateful recipients across the country. Scenes with his wife, Jill Nielson-Farrell (who had offered her kidney to Spurgeon, only to be derailed by a kidney stone) are difficult to watch, but her evident comfort at meeting the beneficiaries of her husband’s transplants provides some catharsis. Similarly emotional are scenes of Spurgeon meeting the family of his own donor, and their unguarded grappling with the bittersweet joy of their son’s posthumous generosity is unflinchingly and respectfully presented by the director.
As it concludes, D Tour transcends its shoe-string budget, modest ambitions, and narrow scope to hint at larger questions, putting a human, indie-rock face on a much broader problem. Through the indefatigable good-humor of Spurgeon, the selflessness of his friends, and the sympathetic camera of Granato, the viewer is confronted with the best kind of documentary, one that shows more than it tells, capturing a story of life and death, and life in death.
D Tour is screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which begins 4/23.
Showtimes (at the Kabuki Theater) are:
5/1 9:00pm w/ acoustic Rogue Wave performance