It is almost impossible to believe that a short, impoverished Filipino man could ever become the lead singer of a massive American rock band like Journey…until you hear his voice.
Arnel Pineda, now the band’s lead vocalist since his start in 2008, is the center of director Ramona Diaz’s enchantingly inspirational documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey. It is a richly authentic rags-to-riches tale about an improbable discovery and a life-changing opportunity.
The film, produced by Diaz and Joshua Green, chronicles Journey’s concert tour in 2008, Pineda’s first year with the band, and follows them on the road to witness the transformation of their age-old sound. This captivating narrative gets anchored by the interspersed back stories of the band itself, but most importantly Pineda’s growth from his low-income childhood to adult stardom.
Diaz handles these contextual additions with deft understanding of an audience’s desire to stay in the moment, entertained and sporadically informed. Pineda speaks about his childhood in Manila, Philippines, how he would sing at funerals and street corners just to get some rations for his brothers. His mother was ill very early into his childhood, and they had to sell their house and furniture to pay for her medical bills. Pineda continued his desire, though, and eventually landed a spot singing with a band called “Zoo.”
Enter the power of social media. Late one night Neal Schon, lead guitarist for Journey, is scouring the web, looking for a potential new lead singer to join the band. Then he happens upon Zoo’s cover of The Journey song “Faithfully” on YouTube and he is blown away. Schon, together with Jonathon Cain, keyboardist and guitarist, sent an email to Pineda, inviting him to audition, with a note of comic emphasis that “This is Real!”
“I clicked on the link, the same one Neal Schon saw, and I saw Arnel singing Faithfully and my hair stood,” said director Ramona Diaz in an interview. “Oh my goodness someone has to make this film.”
“Ten years ago, this story would not have been possible. Ten years ago there is no YouTube Some obscure singer in the Philippines singing in marginal bands can be plucked from obscurity, brought to the US, audition, and get this gig, that’s a modern story,” she said.
Pineda gets at his visa, and the film captures his tryout process in front of Schon and Cain, who provide insightful musical commentary. By the third day, he is wailing out classics like “Separate Ways” and “Lights” and the entire band can feel the goosebumps.
So can the fans. They line up young and old to fill the 20,000 seat venues all over the country. It is surreal for Pineda, who can clear as day recall his scrapping for meals, and who now gets catered to daily. Pre-show you can catch him with herbal tea and throat spray, sometimes even oxygen masks and masseuses. It could appear that this film is another representation of American dream idealism, but it is more an ode to the internet, music and their potential life-changing combination. Even with the emotional gravitas of his story, Pineda’s progression into becoming the lead singer is at times just as comical. Here is a band full of old white dudes trying to keep up with their new energetic Filipino on stage and on tour, along with tons of new fans.
“It’s obviously really great to see new fans,” said Schon. “They’re very energized because they haven’t seen us for thirty years in a row. They’ve been so supportive of all the changes we’ve ever gone through and I think the songs and the music really prevail.”
The film has a similar feel to Rattle and Hum in terms of capturing intimate performances and adrenaline-filled crowds. It gives brief synopses of Journey’s past and its collective members, including those outlandish ‘70s blow-dried dos, but the spotlight is on Pineda and rightfully so. We see his perspective, feel his pressure, enjoy his ecstasy and Diaz stylizes the camera to mimic his fluctuating emotion. He also document his increasingly growing, and sometimes burdensome, musical stock, and the excessive fan culture that his ethnicity and talent have garnered.
If you have any doubt that Journey is a universal band, let the hordes of Filipino fans prove you wrong. In one scene, they gather before a concert selling T-shirts of hand drawn faces of band members and signs with Pineda puns, a la Jeremy Lin.
“Even without me a lot of Filipinos are really big fans of Journey,” said Pineda modestly. “We rekindled, we helped re-burn a fire that’s inside them, longing for Journey’s songs to be heard again; we have revived it.”
Pineda’s humility is what defines him, and Journey’s openness is what gave him a chance.
“I lived in his bubble for the first year when everyone tells you you’re the most fantastic thing since sliced bread,” recalled Diaz. “The fact that he’s able to understand the process and step away from it and still be humble is incredible.”
The film is at its best when it peeks in on music being taught, written and performed in behind-the-scenes encounters that break down the public barriers. These clips reassure us that these men are not clichéd rock gods, but mortal musicians, constantly fine-tuning and, making hard work seem second nature. The movie only appears trite because Journey’s generic song titles often embody the “journey” of Arnel Pineda.
“We hopefully become an inspiration and a catalyst for all those hopeless dreamers out there who have given up their dreams,” said Pineda
It’s hard not to be inspired. Besides asserting the splendor of cyberspace, Diaz illustrates the impact Pineda’s gifts have had on the band, and the unique symbiosis of musical talent that spreads as a result. It is not Steve Perry, but it does not need to be, and it is this understanding that transcends the pop-icon culture, and it is this kind of story that validates music’s universal theme.
“It’s larger than just one individual as we have proven,” said Schon. “I think we got it right a long time ago, and I think we’re still getting it right and it’s the reason we’re enjoying the longevity of success.”