[30 September 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I’m living a fairy tale right now,” says Arnel Pineda. “Until now, everything for me, it’s not really happening. I’m just dreaming.” Describing his new gig—lead singer for Journey—Arnel Pineda speaks softly. He sits in a black leather chair, arms stretched behind his head and plaid wool scarf around his suddenly precious throat. Imagining “the expectations of thousands of people,” he smiles and sighs, then takes his long hair into his hands and leans back.
The moment comes early in Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, establishing the documentary’s focus on the complexity of Arnel’s position, in the band and in a broader context that might best be described as those “expectations.” If Arnel here underestimates the number of people who have them and doesn’t quite articulate the many layers of history that shape these expectations, he’s well aware that once he agrees to join Journey, his life is no longer his own.
This change, so exciting and so daunting, so radical and yet so practical, is the focus of Ramona Diaz’s film. Airing on 30 September and inaugurating PBS’ “Indies Showcase,” a collection of four documentaries from Independent Lens and POV, which runs through 21 October, it first offers up a conventional story, an artist discovered and catapulted into a new universe of possibilities. Just so, Don’t Stop Believin’ opens with a YouTube story. In the early 2000s, Arnel was plying his trade in the Philippines, singing with a group called the Zoo, when Journey guitarist Neal Schon, found videos of his performances while surfing the web one late night.
Indeed, the retelling makes this saga sound magical: “It was the 11th hour,” says Neal, “when I was ready to give up.” Journey had recently been using stand-in singers, unable quite to replace Steve Perry, whose vocals and songwriting had helped to make the band on of the most commercially successful in the world, ever. (The film’s title reminds you of just one of many hits, 1981’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which, thanks in part to The Sopranos, in 2009 became the top-selling catalog track in iTunes history.) Schon describes the band’s dilemma: even as they want to move forward, to write and perform new material, they have a well-known “classic” catalogue. The fans, he observes, are “used to hearing it one way and they want to hear it that way. And so they’re big shoes to fill. Steve Perry definitely left some big shoes.”
And so: flown to San Francisco to audition for the guys, Arnel wins the chance to sing, in part because he has a “huge” voice, with a remarkable range, and also because he shows malleability, that is, he’s willing to adapt to expectations. This process of adapting is complicated from the start, as keyboardist Jonathan Cain phrases it: “I think the biggest concern of mine was, how do you take someone from a Third World country and throw him into this circus? It’s a big circus, you know.”
This is the slightly less magical aspect of Arnel and Journey’s story, as it involves everyone making adjustments, understanding consequences, and accepting challenges. The film’s focus on Arnel suggests that he makes most of these adjustments. Pondering the “circus” in his own way, Arnel admits, “I had a very uncomfortable feeling. So this is what they wanted, the legacy sound. How will my real self come out? But, I thought if that’s what they want, I’ll just do my job.” That conflict—between the job and a “real self”—laces through the film, but subtly. Instead of showing rehearsals where such ideas might be knocked around, it offers two parallel narrative tracks, the first in conventional road-show montages and the second in interviews with Arnel over time, as he thinks through his obligations and aspirations. The montages include time-lapsey stage set-ups and take-downs, travels in the bus, and performance footage. During the first arena show, in 2008 at the Quinta Vergara Amphitheater in Viña del Mar, Arnel scampers around the stage’s long walkways, and so earns a reprimand—or maybe just a suggestion—from his more experienced bandmates: “You shouldn’t be jumping up and down.”
Though this moment passes quickly, and Arnel understands their concerns (“I took it in a professional manner, I hadn’t proven to them that I can really last, that they can depend on me the whole tour”), he goes on to articulate his own concerns, apart from specific notes from his fellow performers. As he endeavors to “just do my job,” he’s facing other elements outside the music. The first is predictable and lamentable, namely, a racist response from some fans, who, as Arnel puts it, “wanted me to fail.” A brief montage shows some pathetic emails (“Only pilipinos will support tis crappy singer” [sic]) or expose their ignorance to interviewers in parking lots: “I think he should be from here,” says one girl with a Coors Light in hand. Arnel is generous here, allowing that their resistance may not only be about him, but more about their allegiance to Steve Perry: “I am also a very big fan of Perry,” he says, “Where they are coming from, I understand. He’s really got one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard.”
He’s also thoughtful when it comes to the other part of the circus, which affects this 42-year-old singer and his family. Now, he insists, he prays on the temptations facing him, and his wife Cherry, who helped him during previous substance abuse back in the Philippines, here insists that they’ve made a “promise” to get through what’s ahead. Don’t Stop Believin’ doesn’t dig into any of this backstory, only mentioning the drinking and drugs and showing a brief return home, where the couple—their young son in the chauffeured car seat between them—remembers the poverty they endured.
Rather than a faux psychological analysis, the film offers instead a general commentary on how class, race, and nationality—as well as gender, even more generally—shape Arnel’s experience. In this broad sense, while his story is unusual, it is also representative.