Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey, which premieres tonight at 10PM as part of PBS’s Independent Lens has a great and very sweet story at its center. In 2007, the reconstituted band Journey, in search of a new lead singer, found one on YouTube–Arnel Pineda, who’d grown up and endured periods of homelessness in the Phillipines, and was singing in a cover band. They flew him to the United States, auditioned him, and have been performing with him ever since. But as much as I like to see a happy ending, particularly the day after the series finale of Breaking Bad, Don’t Stop Believin’ is ultimately maddening, a terrific example of how to squander a premise that should lend itself to rich discussions of race, the physical challenges of rock performance, and internet culture.
Part of the problem with Don’t Stop Believin’ is that one of its central tensions isn’t really a tension at all. Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain explains in the film that his primary concern about adding Pineda to the band was “How do you take someone from a third-world country and throw him into this circus? It’s a big circus.” But of course, as it turns out, Pineda already had some experience with the circus, particularly during a long-term contract gig in Hong Kong when Pineda’s drug and alcohol use damaged his voice such that a doctor suggested his singing career was over. And he’d had some moderate success with his original songs. ButDon’t Stop Believin’ doesn’t do much to delve into the difference between a contract job and an international tour, how his addition to Journey might have changed the band’s presentation and global brand, or the extent to which Pineda’s career with Journey is essentially an artistic compromise, committing him to singing mostly cover songs, rather than performing his own material. The movie might have been better served if it had spent time drawing out some of these issues than on rather isolated scenes of Pineda with dignitaries back home, or relatively anodyne discussions of the rockstar life.
What the movie does do well is to draw out the physical difficulties of performing as a rock musician. Journey’s catalogue presents particular challenges, as Cain, who acted as Pineda’s vocal coach on the road, explains because it requires a singer who can switch deftly between two different modes. “To make that seamless and to be able to switch gears the way Journey switches gears, Steve Perry had that right down,” Cain says. “There’s two little bands of skin that have to do all the stretching…There’s only so many voices that can adapt to that.” And some of it is simply the time on the road, which puts Pineda in contact with a large number of different people and requires him to sing through illness and exhaustion. Throughout the documentary, Pineda seems to be on or extolling the virtues of antibiotics almost constantly, as a mantra to assure the other members of the band that he’ll be fine. But towards the end of the movie, it’s clear that the constant doses of tea with honey, the throat sprays, the pills, and even an oxygen mask aren’t enough, and that Pineda is starting to feel irritated by his dependence on them to stay able to sing. “I want to live in a healthy way and I want to enjoy my family healthy, not sick,” he explains, not quite grumbling, certainly never ungrateful for the opportunity, but clearly showing strain.
Don’t Stop Believin’ could have also done more to explore the extent to which Pineda’s addition to Journey challenged the perception of classic rock as a primarily white genre. Pineda clearly believed it was a risk. “I’m not even cute. I’m short. I’m so Asian. If you picture it, my God, it’s like I was just edited in,” he said of his surprise when his audition to join the band was successful. The documentary does the film equivalent of cherry-picking Tweets to point out that there are racists and good people in the Journey fandom alike. “I think he should be from here. I do!” a tailgating female fan says on camera at one point. “Are you racist? Just kidding,” a male member of her group teases her. “I kind of like that he’s not,” another woman chimes in. “More variety, brings in more people.” And while seems later that whatever Perry loyalists in the audience decided doesn’t seem to have affected ticket sales, it would have been interesting to see Don’t Stop Believin’ think more carefully about how Pineda’s performances upset–or conformed to–norms. As the movie stands, that’s something that only really comes up in a moment early in the tour when the band’s manager encourages him to stay more still on stage, rather than stepping out like a scene-stealing frontman, a concern that, given Pineda’s style, seems to have evaporated.
The movie also misses an opportunity to explore internet culture in greater depth. Obviously, it’s wonderful and novel that Neal Schon found Pineda mostly because he was a YouTube junkie and found videos of Pineda’s cover performances that Neal Gomez, a dedicated Pineda fan, uploaded at internet cafes, sometimes staying up all night to wait out slow internet connections. And Pineda’s clearly aware that what the internet can give in opportunities, it can take away in energy and self-esteem. “They would call me monkey, garbage, and impersonator, karaoke boy. If I would take it seriously, I’ll get hurt,” he says. “They love it, the attention that I’m going to give them.” It’s maybe true that the right answer to the internet age is “Don’t read the comments!” But as a dramatic arc in a documentary goes, it’s a decided anti-climax.
I suppose it’s nice to know that the meritocracy occasionally works, that the internet has lowered barriers in ways that sometimes give people incredible opportunities, and that it’s possible to go on tour with Journey and stay sane. But Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey could have been sharp and relevant. Instead, it comes across as a set of all-too-familiar chords that can gives us some of the same old pleasure, but not the thrill of something new.