'Don't Stop Believin': A documentary follows Journey's new lead singer

'Don't Stop Believin': Arnel Pineda was homeless and sang rock covers until he became the new Journey front man.

Courtesy of John Pop Plewell
Journey found Arnel Pineda (far left) through a video on YouTube.

Silverdocs kicked off its 10th annual film festival Monday night with a special screening of Ramona Diaz’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.”

As festival director Skye Sitney said when introducing the film, it’s one of those stories that “if it were a fictional film, you’d throw up your hands halfway through at how improbable the whole thing is.”

And she’s right. Aside from the fact that it’s chock full of Journey’s ridiculously addicting, rock anthem music, the beauty of the story is that Steven Spielberg couldn’t have scripted the film better if he tried.

It goes something like this: poor kid from the Philippines loses his mom and ends up homeless on the streets of Manila. To support himself, he channels his amazing vocal talent into a gig in a local band. They survive playing covers of American bands like Bon Jovi and Journey. The kid grows up, keeps singing, battles drug and alcohol abuse and tries to launch a solo career that goes nowhere. By the time he turns 40, he’s so despondent that he’s ready to give up on music altogether. Just as he’s deciding to pack it in, he gets an email from the states – it’s Neal Schon from Journey. The band is desperately searching for the perfect new front man and they’ve stumbled across video of the kid on YouTube singing Journey covers. They’re blown away. Can he come to the US to audition in person?

Thus begins the wildly implausible and totally enthralling story of how Arnel Pineda – former street kid from Manila – became the new Steve Perry, helped Journey score their first platinum album ever, and now travels around the world playing to sold out stadium crowds.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a soft spot for Journey about a mile wide (and not just because they have best musical shout out to the Motor City in all of rock and roll). So, as a Journey fan and the daughter of native Detroiters who’s a sucker for a good Cinderella story, the film bordered on a religious experience.

As a filmmaker who’s constantly working to hone my own craft, it was about 20 minutes too long and lacked a clear narrative arc, especially when it came to Diaz’s coverage of the band’s history and own trajectory.  And whatever HAPPENED to Steve Perry, anyway?  The question looms large and never really gets answered. That said, Arnel and his story are thoroughly riveting, the band is actually refreshingly humble and easy to connect with, and watching the transformation and rebirth of both Journey and the kid from Manila is a pretty powerful experience.

There are so many moments in the film that are documentary gold, but the final concert scene where native son made good comes home, complete with close-up on wife wiping away tears, holding baby as she watches her husband perform for tens of thousands of adoring, screaming fans as the wind whips her hair was straight out of Hollywood.  It’s like you’re pulling so hard for Pineda that you’re pulling for Diaz, too, even when the film falls short. All in all, it’s a story that could only happen in America, covered in pixie dust.  Well shot and totally worth seeing.

The film was followed by Q&A, featuring director Ramona Diaz, producers Josh Green and Capella Fahoome. Washington Post music pop culture critic Chris Richards, moderated. Diaz, who is Philipina described how she discovered the story. “I’m plugged into the community and get all of these emails. And someone forwarded me an email from the immigration officer that gave Arnel Pineda his visa [to come over for the audition],” she explained. “I knew someone had to make this film, but I thought ‘ that’s a lot of work.’ The music was expensive. The logistics.”  She called their manager and suggested he find someone to make the film. The manager, convinced Diaz was the right filmmaker for the job, called Journey’s manager.  Journey’s people were skeptical, but finally granted permission for a one-day shoot.  From that footage Diaz and her team cut a five-minute trailer and sent it to the band.  Journey’s manager called back almost immediately and invited them to come on board.

“It was so exciting,” Diaz recalled, “but we had no money. It was 2008, the market had just crashed and no one was funding films.” Farhoome explained that the team “charged up our credit cards” and Green said that he “lost track of how many corporate videos and commercials Cabella – and Ramona too – did to keep this going.”

Another challenge was access within the access. While the team had permission to film, it took them a while to earn the full trust of the band. They were allowed around with the cameras, but not yet allowed backstage.  “Arnel was really open but the other guys had been around the block before,” Farhoome explained.  Diaz was the first to score the coveted all-access pass that allowed her to go anywhere.  Passes for the crew soon followed.

Timing was also key. The crew got in with Arnel on his first tour with the band, before he had an assistant or his family traveling with him. The crew became his entourage.  ”We were alone in the dressing room, we became his conscience,” Green explained.  The intimacy of this relationship comes through in the film and the viewer really gets a sense of Pineda’s almost childlike joy, his near-crushing anxiety and fear of failure – all uncensored and uncut.

As to the filmmaker’s relationship with the band now, Green says they’re still in close touch. “They’re about to go on another monster tour, and they just closed CMT awards with Rascal Flatts, which was huge. We’re going to do a theatrical run later this year so they’ll hopefully be there for that.”

Aside from the obvious challenges -  “money, money and money” – the filmmakers had to both literally keep up with the band and keep up their own stamina. “It was not glamorous at all,” Diaz explained, “It was tiring.”  She went on to explain how her team followed Journey’s two big tour buses in one mini-van that housed Diaz, the producers, and the crew.  “We’d chase the buses and then they got to where they were going, the band would sleep and we worked filming load-in and set up…we were just following them around the country in our little mini-van hoping you’re getting something good. ”

Other big challenges included culling through 500 hours of footage from the road and scouring the globe to identify and secure archival footage. “It was like special ops getting footage out of all of these countries,” Green said.

Diaz said she was inspired by other rock documentaries, including “Metallica, Some Kind of Monster,” but at the end of the day, Pineda’s is a unique story all his own. “It’s a feel good film. It takes a different road than other rock films. It had to be about Arnel.”

Erin Essenmacher blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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