Ramona Diaz’s Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey is the story of Arnel Pineda, the Filipino singing prodigy who at age forty was plucked from total obscurity in his native Manila and recruited to join his all-time favorite band Journey. In quick-cut, high-gloss concert video fashion, Diaz takes us through Pineda’s gradual emergence from spastic, shaky newcomer to certified rock god all while maintaining his modest appeal.
Fragile and diminutive, with girlish cheekbones, Pineda is no one’s idea of an arena rock star. “I’m not even cute. I’m short, I’m so Asian. It’s like I was photoshopped into the band,” he says in one of several charmingly self-effacing asides. But his vocals are so frighteningly close to those of former Journey powerhouse Steve Perry that there’s never any question he’s the man for the job. Diaz’s energetic documentary will make audiences share Pineda’s excitement and awe, but it’s frustratingly limited in scope and depth.
On an emotional scale, it hits the requisite highs and lows of a “Behind the Music” special, as Pineda shifts from ecstasy to uneasiness to outright disenchantment at the reality of his newfound fame. And early on, there’s a few saddening scenes capturing the ignorant remarks of certain fans, who don’t welcome the lineup change (“I think he should be from here,” one redneck girl says). But beyond that, Diaz doesn’t delve much into the dark side of Pineda’s outsider status.
To be sure, it couldn’t have been easy to triumph over lifelong Journey fans’ scrutiny but his transition comes off rather seamlessly—consequently the film doesn’t generate much tension. And though Pineda remains a likable, well-grounded figure throughout, most of his epiphanies, which constitute the largest part of the film’s non-musical footage, are on the bland side (“I can’t believe I’m here,” “It feels like a dream,” etc.) Furthermore, Diaz seldom considers the hollowness Pineda might feel about his being, at heart, a virtuoso imitator, who never achieved fame with his own music.
And yet “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a heartfelt, entertaining story which will leave you smiling and hopeful. Diaz makes an excessive use of gimmicks at times (plenty of stop-motion sunsets here), but she’s smart enough to leave in some small, subtle moments of humor which makes Don’t Stop Believin’ more memorable than standard rockumentaries.
The son of tailors, Pineda grappled with poverty throughout his life; by the time he was a teenager, his mother had died from rheumatic heart disease, and soon after his family could no longer afford rent and were kicked out of their home. In 1981, the same year the Journey bandmembers became millionaires from their now-ubiquitous hit, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” fourteen year-old Pineda was singing on the street for change. Over the next two and a half drug-laced decades, Pineda sang Journey, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and other power-rock covers with countless fashion-blind bands (shown here via hilarious home videos). He started an original band, Zoo, but failed to endear audiences to his cornball love songs. By 2007, fed up and exhausted, he was ready to retire to domesticity with wife and child. That’s when Journey founder/guitarist Neal Schon, who had long since parted ways with Perry, found Pineda’s YouTube videos after an exhaustive Internet search. Spellbound, he invited Pineda to San Francisco for tryouts to sing on Journey’s new record, “Revelation.” After landing the gig, Pineda, Schon, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Deen Castronovo set off on an extensive international tour.
Die-hard fans aside, most people will find it hard to tolerate two hours of Journey’s squealing, masturbatory solos, painfully overearnest lyrics and opera-like vocals. Happily, although Diaz mostly takes Journey’s cheesy theatrics seriously, she’s not afraid to make fun of their world at times. It’s impossible not to laugh at Pineda’s squeaky-clean dressing-room (lined with Evian, Throat Coat and boxes of Premium crackers), or his practicing scales backstage like a child preparing for a recital. And while you might not appreciate the older Journey members’ musicianship—try not to cringe when they write an awful extension of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” commemorating the troops in Iraq and starving people in Ethiopia—as people they are refreshingly low-key. It’s touching how much they adore Pineda and defend him from haters. They register like rock-star babysitters, gently instructing Pineda how to tone down his frantic, spur-of-the-moment on-stage choreography.
Its flaws notwithstanding, Diaz’s film is to be commended for drawing out the humanity of a band long-considered by critics to be faceless.