‘Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey’: Rock on

March 5, 2013

You absolutely don’t have to be a fan of the rock group Journey to enjoy Ramona Diaz’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.”

Because I’m not. Really. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as someone who was working as a rock critic for the first decade and a half of the group’s existence, I always regarded them as unexplainably popular, an at-best thoroughly mediocre hit-making machine. Not quite in the same league as Yes for pretentiousness, but approaching that same ’80s-era-level of arena-rock bombast.

But I found myself caught up in this film, which is the story of Arnel Pineda, who was a 40-year-old former street kid in Manila, The Philippines, who was an itinerant rock singer, moving from club band to club band in his hometown. One night, someone shot video of him in his latest gig, singing in a cover band in a Manila club – warbling a Journey song, as it happened.

So in 2007, when the real Journey found itself without a lead singer to book the kind of “legacy” tour that has become so popular, they began an exhaustive search – which ended when guitarist Neal Schon came across the YouTube video of Pineda. They were impressed enough to fly him to L.A. from the Philippines for an audition – then told him he had the job.

He was the lead singer of Journey.

He had never played for more than a couple hundred people in a club. His first gig was in a stadium in Chile before tens of thousands.

And Diaz was the filmmaker who got Pineda to agree to let her to go along for his wild ride. Plucked from obscurity, he lands in the recording studio with the group, then goes on an international tour with them – and discovers that it is both physically exhausting and vocally demanding to do a lengthy tour with a full 90-minute show most nights.

It’s not just the singing, though his voice is pretty amazing, given how small he is physically and how big it is aurally. But he hits the stage like a jumping jack, Mick Jagger times David Lee Roth, divided by Steven Tyler: racing back and forth on the stage, leaping from risers and performing split kicks – he’s a human pinball, caroming around the stage.

It’s not just the audience going wild; Diaz also captures the reaction of the band and crew to Pineda’s onstage gymnastics. They’re taken aback at these outbursts, these stick-in-the-mud aging rockers who have always had stolid stage presence. Now their stiffness is being highlighted by this relative youngster, dancing around them, literally jumping for joy at the chance to play live rock’n’roll in front of screaming crowds as singer for one of the biggest bands in the world.

God knows that Steve Perry, the band’s lead singer during its commercial prime, was always a bit of a stiff onstage: a pompous singer at best. Pineda doesn’t have to strut, he practically vibrates from excitement just standing still – and he doesn’t stand still very often.

But Diaz gets it: that this is a young Filipino thrust into what feels like a dream world – even as he discovers that the dream includes taking responsibility for taking care of his voice. Which, in his case, seems to mean spending a lot of time breathing in steam, drinking hot tea and otherwise acting like an ailing elderly shut-in instead of a rock star – so he can be the rock star and sing his vocal cords raw each night.

Obviously, proper training keeps that from happening. But this is someone suddenly forced to develop the stamina for a tour – while he’s doing a tour.

At 113 minutes, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is probably not too long for the true Journey fan, who gets to see Pineda and the group do full-length concert versions of many, many Journey hits. Many.

We don’t really get to know the other band members, though they do talk about the experience of working with Pineda as though he were a younger brother of whom they feel protective. Yet there are also moments where you can see it on their faces: This guy is so incredibly inexperienced. And we’re putting our whole tour on his back. Are we crazy? Or is he really that talented?

So it’s a strange blend, at first, of camaraderie and mentorship, as they try to teach him the ropes while he learns the songs – and teach him the tricks of the trade at the same time. Pineda is refreshingly candid with Diaz’s camera about his day-to-day feelings of being overwhelmed. He’s self-aware enough to be interesting when he talks about what he’s going through.

He’s also very honest about his own past problems with drugs and alcohol. He’s married, with a child – and it’s a second marriage, the first doomed by his tomcat ways, he says. But he opens up to the camera about the temptation on the road because so many women suddenly are available to him – and how hard it is to maintain his resolve to stay true to his wife.

The best documentaries of this sort capture the person’s most naked personality in a specific moment, revealing something about character in the process. “Don’t Stop Believin’” isn’t a rockumentary so much as the story of one man discovering just how much real work actually goes in to living the dream.

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