Already having a whirlwind 2018 with the release of the milestone Asian-American rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon M. Chu is continuing to dream big for more representation in Hollywood. For his latest studio project, the director will back yet another Asian success story, this time finding its protagonist in the Philippines.
According to Deadline, Chu is set to return to his roots of music-infused films — let’s not forget that he made some Step Up movies and not one, but two Justin Bieber concert films. He will direct a biographical movie based on the life of Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, the latest frontman of 1980s rock sensation Journey who very notably sports an incredible vocal resemblance to the band’s memorable erstwhile crooner, Steve Perry.
As part of a distinct rags-to-riches tale that just sounds too good to be true, Pineda’s road to stardom is a particularly special one. The year was 2007. Journey was prepping to tour and urgently seeking a vocalist after Jeff Scott Soto’s short-lived tenure. That’s when Pineda caught the eye of guitarist Neal Schon via a series of songs performed by the singer’s cover band, The Zoo. Schon watched them on YouTube and after flying Pineda from his home country to the United States for a promising two-day audition, the rest was history.
In order to bring this fairytale narrative to the big screen, Chu is once again teaming up with Warner Bros. The studio, which also produced Crazy Rich Asians, is working on securing licenses to Journey’s discography for this currently untitled biopic. Furthermore, the rights to the 2012 documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey have also been acquired for use to map out the narrative of Chu’s film.
The documentary, which was directed by Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, marks a perfunctory but nevertheless inspiring perspective on Pineda’s meteoric rise as he adjusts to life on the road with his musical idols. The difference between the poverty of his home life and the spotlight he is thrust into as a member of Journey are stark. Overall, Pineda’s personal trajectory is the most fulfilling aspect of Don’t Stop Believin’.
That said, Diaz’s sparkly portrait of newfound fame tends to gloss over potential tensions one would expect from a touring band with a history of interchangeable singers and a seemingly conflicting brand borne from a heavy dose of nostalgia. We get a glimpse of a skeptical fanbase harboring racist and xenophobic views. Pineda does experience some growing pains in trying to fit in with huge rock stars, although those threads are never tugged at for long. Because, of course, in the end, the humbled, earnest singer wins everyone over.
In spite of its sentimental nature, Don’t Stop Believin’ makes it abundantly clear that Pineda is the perfect charismatic focal point for any film. This bodes so well for Chu’s biopic and as the filmmaker himself states:
“The success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has blown my mind and set me on a path to champion more unique inspirational stories that represent new perspectives from all around the world. This story, in particular, has been on my mind since I first read about it years ago. A true fairy tale and triumph of the human spirit. An unlikely hero, an undeniable talent, the power of music, and a worldwide stage (literally) has all the ingredients I love about movies.”
Chu’s Pineda biopic definitely has a hint of a universal twist, but it is obviously especially admirable due to its inclusiveness. It’s true that several actors of Filipino descent have held their own in Western media; think musical theater veteran Lea Salonga and American Crime Story‘s Darren Criss. But Filipino characters themselves have had a rocky history in Hollywood. Fictional representations are few and far between as it is. While some break the mold, many such characters frustratingly end up as indistinct caricatures, the target of ill-advised and sometimes outright offensive jokes.
The industry is in need of more success stories featuring Asians of all kinds, including Filipinos. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Hollywoodizing this narrative will be foolproof. We can’t forget that Pineda’s story is, in itself, far from ordinary and relatable. When considering Crazy Rich Asians, it is hardly a cohesive depiction of every single Chinese person out there either. People in Asia have had problems with the film in a way Asian-Americans don’t.
Regardless, I do think that Chu is operating in an important space that negotiates escapism and representation, though. His Pineda feature could very well operate in a similar way to Crazy Rich Asians, zooming in on one Filipino’s dream come true to hopefully inspire the telling of other stories like it. For this reason, I’m on board.