(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on March 8, 2013.)
In 1996, heavy metal band Judas Priest hired Tim “Ripper” Owens to be their lead singer, after former singer Rob Halford quit. This was dramatized in 2001’s Rock Star, directed by Stephen Herek, with the tagline stating it was “A story about a wannabe who got to be.” It’s a terrific notion: a lead singer of a popular band quits and leaves a nigh-unfillable void, only for someone to take up the mantle and do it his or her own way, resulting in resounding success. And we’ve all dreamt of being that person that fills that void. Another real-life example of this is documented in the new film Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, where pop-rock band Journey finds a wonderful new frontman through that bastion of modern media exposure, YouTube.
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey is, essentially, a non-fiction version of Rock Star, only without the hard partying, sex, drugs, and alcohol that dominate Herek’s film. We see how Journey transformed from a self-described “jam band” into the ‘80s pop powerhouse it became, fronted by lead singer Steve Perry; it was during this time that Journey experienced their heyday, touring behind their hit albums “Captured,” “Escape,” and “Frontiers.” These albums spawned radio hit after radio hit, and their legacy would reach into the 2000s, with “Don’t Stop Believin’” experiencing a resurgence in popularity after being used in the controversial series finale of “The Sopranos.” When that episode aired, Journey could not capitalize on the song’s sudden spotlight, as they had no lead singer at the time; notable Journey frontmen Steve Perry and Steve Augeri quit after their stints with Journey due to their respective medical problems.
This documentary features all the current members of Journey, telling their story about how Arnel Pineda became their new frontman. Guitarist Neal Schon stumbles upon a YouTube video of Filipino singer Pineda and his band The Zoo, where he is shown singing a fairly vocally-difficult Journey song to note-perfection… and the rest is history. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey follows Pineda for a year, as he flies from Manila to audition for Journey’s open frontman spot, eventually getting it and going on tour with them. We hear his story, of how he grew up poor in the Philippines, with his family being split after his mother dies; we also hear about how he got into singing and started earning money with his voice; and we see the other band members’ reaction to the fresh blood suddenly injected into their lives.
Full disclosure here – I’m a Filipino-American musician, so this documentary hit me in my soft spot. Here’s a kid from the poorer barangays of Metro Manila whose life wasn’t always the best, and he’s now fronting one of the music world’s most popular acts, selling out arenas and large ampitheater-style venues. He’s recording new music with his heroes, and at age 45, he’s as spry and charismatic as Axl Rose in his mid-20s. His wide-eyed wonder during the touring scenes never falters or turns into jadedness; he knows what he’s got and he’s determined to make the most of it. The other members of Journey – Schon, bassist Ross Valory, keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Cain, and drummer Deen Castronovo – have nothing but compliments for this third-world kid who manages to match Steve Perry’s magnetic tone note-for-note and be totally cool about his new life. Even though Pineda knows the “haters” are out there – the people who say that Journey can only be fronted by Steve Perry, or other people who think that the new singer should be American or white – that just makes him work all the more harder to win them over, and the ticket totals of these shows overwhelmingly says that he has.
Director Ramona A. Diaz has put together a welcome look at a touring band that has received a second life and the singer that blew them all away. Featuring interviews with family members, band members, and various touring staff, we are shown just how well Pineda has taken up the mantle set for him by Perry. From playing the Greek Theater in Los Angeles to meeting Filipino ex-president Gloria Macpagal-Arroyo, Diaz gets right up close and personal, leaving nothing out. Although some scenes could have been cut for a shorter running time and a tighter narrative – extended looks at the band warming up before shows and seemingly endless fan conversations are among the culprits – Diaz chooses to linger and accentuate how ultimately NOT “rock-star” Pineda’s life can be. Once you’re on the other side of the “authorized personnel only” sign, the mystery only leads to hours upon hours of hard work put into making each gig better than the last, an ethos Pineda uses to better his performances. At times, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey suffers from what feels like a bit of an amateur bent to it; essentially, it feels like someone carrying around a video camera, pointing and shooting, with introspective interviews stuck in between. But it’s that kind of naked rawness that gives this documentary its charm, and its candid nature makes it a must-see for 2013.