On separate occasions in the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, newly hired Journey frontman Arnel Pineda describes his life as a “fairy tale” and a “Cinderella story.” It’s better described as a globalization of the American Dream, a kind of “Mr. Deeds Goes on Tour” narrative where Deeds is now a Filipino discovered somewhat randomly through the world-shrinking magic of the Internet, specifically YouTube. In one of the most distinct moments of the film, a concertgoer admits her preference that the band’s new singer “was from here,” as if outsourcing has ever been viewed as an issue in pop music.
What that young woman clearly really meant, in spite of her insistence that she’s not racist, is that she wishes he was not Asian. And it’s this racial aspect of Pineda’s story that is one of the more intriguing parts of the film. Not only is the choice of a Filipino singer, regardless of his vocal talent, met with bigoted criticism around the web (“the Internet giveth and taketh away,” director Ramona S. Diaz told me in a recent interview), but there’s also a kind of reverse racially charged phenomenon at play in the fact that suddenly Journey is a huge hit with Filipino Americans, who are now a large percentage of the band’s live audience just because of Pineda’s nationality.
Diaz, herself a native of the Philippines who previously made a film about Imelda Marcos (Imelda), is good to acknowledge both sides of the race angle, especially since it adds meat to a conflict-free story that could otherwise have been sufficiently documented in a short. Still, there could have been more to do with the racism against Pineda, if only because late in the film he claims to have turned a few of these prejudiced skeptics around. We never see or specifically hear of any of those critics changing their mind about him or his skin color.
At least Diaz knows or finds the interesting pieces worth addressing, unlike the recent Oscar winner Searching for Sugar Man, which merely does a decent job of presenting an unbelievable (and actually somewhat false) Cinderella story set in the music world, never digging deep enough into the ‘why’s pertaining to race and success in the U.S. (among other faults). Don’t Stop Believin’ has a remarkable story, but aside from Pineda’s nationality it’s not a totally rare or astonishing one. Documentaries could also be made about the tribute act-originating replacements for Yes, Kiss, the Grateful Dead, The Jam and Judas Priest — the last of whom was fictionalized for the 2001 movie Rock Star. But the more common this practice becomes, the less compelling it is as a story on its own.
Likewise, the fascination of the Internet discovery fantasy is becoming spread thin, as well. We’ve seen variations before in Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and, outside the music world, stuff like Winnebago Man and the Chris Crocker doc Me at the Zoo. The thing is, Don’t Stop Believin’ isn’t really about how Pineda was found so much as it’s about what happens next, on the road. That’s what Diaz shot first hand and primarily what she chronicles, and except for those contextual asides it’s rather mundane stuff. Like Bieber in his doc, Pineda’s major struggle during the tour is a minor ailment threatening his voice.
Docs like this don’t necessarily require drama, however. We already understand the circumstances and may consider on our own Pineda’s triumphs and the obstacles he’s overcome and is overcoming to get to where he is and to go the distance successfully. What is missing, though, is fully focused moments. This is a very long film for its kind, yet it’s cut very breezily as though it’s a hundred-minute montage rather than a movie made up of individual scenes. The classics of the genre are remembered not so much for the stories themselves but for the story pieces. Actually, they’re not even always pieces of a story, they’re pieces of life. It could be a certain performance or conversation or confrontation or a more quiet instance even.
Don’t Stop Believin’ loses out on moments because it’s a film that involves more telling than showing. Yes, there is a lot more visually going on than the band members and Pineda in sit-down interviews talking about his discovery and their tour, but it’s not all story visuals. It’s mostly illustration, which is supplementary. This kind of filmmaking isn’t wrong or bad, and as is evidenced here it can be very engaging and effective for the subject matter. On top of it, the film is mostly enjoyable because Pineda is such a likable lead, an inspiration for his talent and enviable for his luck, we feel happy for him especially because he comes across as so humble and pure.
It’s not the most memorable music doc, but it’s plenty entertaining, particularly if you like Journey and uplifting rags-to-riches tales. And as far as the abundance of panegyric music films out there go, this one keeps a positive light shone on its subject but never puts him on an undeservedly high pedestal. Pineda is consistently treated and presented as a human figure, an everyman as the sub-title suggests, rather than a rock god or legend. In a way, it’s completely appropriate that the film about him is just good enough, nothing too extraordinary or lasting in our minds.
The Upside: Pineda is very likable, both on screen and on the soundtrack, and there are a number of interesting aspects to his story before and after he joined Journey.
The Downside: There’s more telling than showing as far as that story goes, and considering Diaz did not intend to make a rock doc she probably would have benefited as a filmmaker to really separate this from the genre, even if it wouldn’t have then been so marketable to Journey fans.
On the Side: There is no interview with famous former Journey frontman Steve Perry because Diaz believed his presence would take away from the focus on Pineda.