If, during Journey’s heyday thirty years ago, you’d have told a fan that the band would one day find a new lead singer on YouTube, odds are they wouldn’t have believed you. Well, first you’d have to explain what YouTube and the Internet are, but you know what I mean. Arnel Pineda’s story is utterly of the 21st century, the kind of success only made possible by the new age of global connectedness. But Don’t Stop Believin’ isn’t interested in the new brand of insta-fame. Instead, the documentary focuses on how going from nobody to living the dream can affect someone.
In 2007, word-of-mouth around Journey was at its chattiest in years thanks to Don’t Stop Believin playing out the final episode of The Sopranos. The band wanted to exploit this renewed interest, but faced the small problem of not having a lead singer. Since Steve Perry’s departure, they’d rotated through several replacements but no one had stuck. With a tour looming they grew desperate, and guitarist Neil Schon started browsing YouTube for prospects. That was how he discovered Arnel Pineda.
Pineda, a native of the Philippines, had been singing covers of eighties rock for over twenty-five years to mixed fortunes. He’d lived a tumultuous life, having spent two years on the streets of Manila after his mother’s death when he was a preteen – later getting caught up in drug and alcohol abuse. But he’d cleaned up his act by the time a friend taped his performance in a bar and uploaded it to the web. And then, in Pineda’s own words, the “fairy tale” began.
Journey brought Pineda to the States and, after an audition, took him on as lead singer for their Revelation Tour. Despite early trepidation from the fans, which stemmed mostly from fear of something different (but more than a little bit from good old-fashioned racism and xenophobia), Arnel managed to win nearly everyone over. It’s easy to see how. He brings boundless, infectious exuberance to the stage, somehow managing to keep his breath even as he ceaselessly moves about. The other members of Journey, as well as the filmmakers, attribute the band’s revitalization to Pineda’s talent.
The doc is shot and edited quite well. It does a great job of conveying Arnel’s energy on stage, and how he’s able to infuse that energy into an audience. It also mixes up the perspective, preventing things from getting stale. One venue might concentrate on the band, while another comes from the point of view of the crowd, and another remains backstage – watching the technicians working the cameras for the big screen. But while the production is more than capable, the movie’s story comes up lacking.
Schon speculates here that Journey’s popularity stems from the steadfast optimism of their lyrics, and Arnel Pineda’s tale seems tailor-made to fit their songs. It’s a rags-to-riches journey (*ahem*) that no one would dream of making up, for fear it would be too unbelievable. Stories like this are ripe for telling in documentary form, but they’re also vulnerable to frothy, Oprah-style exploitation. Unfortunately, Don’t Stop Believin’ falls into this trap more than a few times, failing to trust its material and relying on treacly sentiment to tweak the emotions.
To be sure, Arnel is a great person, and an endearing protagonist. He’s absolutely dedicated to his singing, powering through a recurring illness on tour to belt it out as best he can. No one except himself can ever tell the difference, but he’s committed to self-reflection, not a common quality in rock stars. He’s turned out this way thanks to a dark, messy past, but the movie is only willing to partially acknowledge that history. His addictions aren’t mentioned until more than halfway through the story, by which time that information doesn’t mesh at all with the person whom we’ve become familiar. It’s referenced a few times how Arnel struggles with new temptations on the tour, but that’s never demonstrated at all on-screen. There’s no sense of genuine conflict to it at all.
In fact, everything potentially downbeat about Arnel is downplayed as much as possible, even though those aspects are what make his story so compelling and uplifting. How can we feel the highs of his new found stardom without understanding the depths to which he once sank? I’m not asking for a lurid HBO-style biopic, but Arnel’s story as told here feels whitewashed and incomplete.
The film’s structure is at fault as well. A half hour in, I wondered what the movie had left to tell, since it had gone through Pineda’s background, the circumstances around him joining the band, and his success with them. It turns out that this is mostly a glorified concert movie, which is great if you’re a big Journey fan, but not so great if you really want to dig into Arnel as a character. As is, the stage sequences are occasionally interspersed with scenes of him reminiscing about his life, but it isn’t enough. The movie mostly consists of behind-the-scenes road footage that’s familiar to anyone who’s seen a band-focused doc before.
I get what the movie is trying to do here. It’s less interested with how Arnel came to the place he is than it is in how he deals with where he is now. But all it says on the subject is “the fame hasn’t changed him; isn’t that just great?” And that’s not much better than the false role model fabrication around whoever’s the latest American Idol frontrunner.
Again, how much you’ll be able to tolerate this will largely depend on how much you like Journey. If you aren’t a fan, then Pineda will do nothing to save this doc for you. I like them well enough, so I was able to stand it, for a while at least. Since the movie is almost two hours long, I feel even the biggest Journey diehard will be worn out by the time it’s over. It doesn’t help that there’s a point where it really looks like the film will end, only for it to go on for another twenty minutes. There’s a good amount of material, especially that which concerns the history of Journey (and thus has next to nothing to do with Pineda), that could easily have been cut.
Don’t Stop Believin’, as pretty much anyone, everywhere, ever will be able to guess, ends with a performance of Don’t Stop Believin’. It takes place in Pineda’s home of Manila, and demonstrates how far he’s come. It should be a soaring capper to the movie, but I could only squirm uncomfortably. Arnel Pineda is a worthy subject for a documentary, but this movie seems only interested in bland, Wal-Mart inspiration. It isn’t bad by any means; it moves amicably enough even with its lopsided structure. But it lets down its own story by sacrificing honesty for safety. That’s death to the emotional truth of Arnel’s journey, and what’s left is little more than nice-sounding lip service to dreams. Much like the music of Journey itself. On that level, this is a perfect Journey movie. But it’s only an okay any-other-kind of movie.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars