Dialysis in the Van: A review of the movie D-TOUR

Seattle Premiere: July 9-11 at the Northwest Film Forum
Director Jim Granato in attendance through the weekend.

Drummer Pat Spurgeon is the kind of guy you meet in a lot of bands. Every good band has at least one player like him; the kind of guy who never had any other thoughts but playing music for a living. There simply was no “Plan B.” Even when his first attempt at putting a group together fizzled out due to a lame scene or less committed members, he hung in there. D-TOUR, a documentary about his life with Bay Area-based Rogue Wave, doesn’t tell much about how this long-running group came together under singer-songwriter Zach Rogue; but it does show how they’re like the namesake which is a near-tsunami force of nature that rocks ships at sea. And how this rock band has the momentum to likewise keep slamming on even when Spurgeon was in desperate need of a kidney transplant.

Through generous benefit concerts featuring Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Nada Surf, John Vanderslice, the Moore Brothers, and others, D-TOUR (for “Dialysis Tour”) shows how to help your drummer stay alive and in the band in spite of having to change a dextrose and waste bag twice a day while on road-dogging. The music played at those gigs is as clear and powerful in this film as the scenes where Spurgeon is struggling to fight monstrous migraines and his legs swelling up, having to keep them propped in the window of the van as Rogue Wave roll out from show to show. (And occasionally run out of gas, just like any other band.) Pat’s girlfriend Jennifer is at a loss to explain how Spurgeon can keep going and stay clean and healthy in the “dirty boy grossness” of a rock and roll touring vehicle, but he does it, for years as he waits for a kidney replacement.

Through this time the super-afro hairy Spurgeon plays out and records classic indie rock albums such as “Descended Like Vultures” with the Oakland–based Rogue Wave, living like any other working class musician, with help from friends and a house full of equipment. It just happens to be medical as well as musical gear.

Director Jim Granato takes his time letting Spurgeon and his loved ones explain the crisis -- that the previous kidney transplant failed, how sick someone in his condition can be, how dire it is to need a new kidney when one is usually assigned by a complicated algorithm -- and how likely it is that Spurgeon will die before he receives a transplant. Tension mounts as people willing to give one of their own -- such as Jill, the wife of band member Evan Ferrell, who enthusiastically donates hers -- are ruled out due to medical complications.

Spurgeon seems grateful for his life even when dealing with the painful trauma of his everyday existence, never refusing to give up no matter how bleak it seems. His point is, I may be sick, but this is who I was meant to be, and no one is going to take that away from me, even if it’s something fatal about my own body. He does this with good humor, as when a bandmate’s wife buys him a maternity girdle to keep in the attachment where he hooks up the D-bag tubing from his lower belly. But it doesn’t shy from showing the agonizing hope of an artist playing at his best while not showing that he’s suffering at his worst.

The interspersed concert performances, acoustic home practices, and humorous anecdotes from friends and family help leaven the drama, but don’t expect a singular lesson from the narrative’s assertion of the importance of organ donation. There’s another tragedy that suddenly develops during the twisty narrative of D-TOUR and it is as heart-stabbing as the search for Spurgeon’s new kidney. The movie ends up affecting you in ways you will never expect, and if you see it with friends will inspire much talk about perseverance, health care, and loving one another than you might expect.

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