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By KJ Doughton | March 19, 2013

Early into Ramona S. Diaz’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” I was surprised to learn that Journey, power ballad lords of the early eighties, were still touring and recording. And I didn’t much care; I’m a Slayer fan.

Admittedly, walking into a rock doc with a musical bias is unfair. After all, “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” transcended its heavy metal soundscapes with something altogether more profound. Even critics who despised the band’s sonic audio death were touched by its universally inspiring ode to brotherly love and unbroken dreams. Maybe this film would weave the same magic. I needed to leave my rock-snob baggage at the door.

“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” tells the astonishing story of Arnel Pineda, an impoverished Filipino singer suddenly plucked from the streets of Manila, granted membership into a major rock band, and thrust onto a Chilean stage in front of 18,000 skeptical listeners. Virtually overnight, Pineda left behind an anonymous life of performing in obscure cover bands and sleeping homeless in parks, to become a full-fledged, A-list front-man.

Flash back to 1998. After Journey loses its legendary front-man Steve Perry (reasons for the split are left vague and unexplained, and Perry does not participate in the film), the band is faced with the daunting task of finding a replacement. Short-lived successors valiantly try to emulate Perry’s astonishing range and emotional delivery, but fail to endure. Perry’s resilient pipes seem impossible to replicate.

The heart of Diaz’s film concerns the astounding events that transpired next. Pineda was a struggling unknown in 2007, limping along as singer for a Manila-based cover band called The Zoo. But thanks to the wonders of cyberspace and a devoted fan named Noel Gomez, who posted Pineda’s performances on YouTube, everything changed.

During an exhaustive hunt for a new singer, Journey guitarist and founder Neil Schon spotted Pineda online, was astonished by his promising voice, and wrote the aspiring talent an offer too good to be true. (His invitation for Pineda to audition for the band concluded with “THIS IS NOT A JOKE.”) Weeks later, the once-starving street kid would be whisked into America, meet up with his idols, earn their confidence, and hit the road on tour.

But at what price?

From the time of Pineda’s initial auditions, he was held under close scrutiny by both band-mates and old school Journey fans weaned on Perry’s sound and presence. Keyboardist and rhythm guitarist Jonathan Cain is honest about the band’s uneasiness with the formidable cultural and socio-economic transitions their new member would face: “How will he take going from a third-world country, and being thrown into this… circus?” During one telling conversation with a pre-concert tailgate party attendee, Diaz is told, “I’m alright with the other singer. I hear he sounds just like (Perry).” Most fans that Diaz interviews don’t even know Pineda’s name. Racist insults materialize online.

Unlike most rock-doc subjects (the cranky Ginger Baker, for instance, in “Beware of Mr. Baker”), Pineda appears to be about the nicest guy ever immortalized on film. Donning a scarf and sporting the pearliest of smiling teeth, he appears a humble, kind, and genuinely sweet human being… perhaps too much. Following his initial performance with Journey, the band’s manager requests that he tone down his energetic, David Lee Roth styled onstage sprints and leaps. The implication is that Pineda’s eager-to-please, puppy dog energy is a bit too enthusiastic for the band’s mellow aesthetic.

And eventually, the road wear of constant touring takes its toll on Pineda’s gregarious presence. As the film proceeds, its subject continues to proclaim the blessings of living his dream… but there’s a tired resignation that suggests otherwise. He’s often sick. An omnipresent humidifier becomes his co-star. The transition from carpe diem innocence to older, wiser demeanor is somewhat sad to behold, but it also reflects Pineda’s humanity in a more three-dimensional way. Adjusting his tennis shoes backstage, Pineda tries to summon some enthusiasm when he’s clearly in a melancholy funk. “Come on,” he tells himself. “You’re in Journey.”

“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” could have used more of this pathos. It raises several questions and premises that aren’t explored beyond a superficial level. For example, what exactly was the catalyst for Perry’s departure? Pineda suggests that his own upbringing in Manila was riddled with sex and drugs, but we’re not privy to any specific details. Meanwhile, we’re shown that fame is causing unwanted ripples in Pineda’s family life, as when he embraces his wife in a hotel and sighs, “It’s all too heavy.” Perhaps out of respect for her subject, Diaz seems reluctant to dig beyond this surface veneer. A noble gesture, perhaps, but one that neuters what could have been a meatier, more dynamic character study.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is Pineda’s impact on Journey’s growth from a patently American band into an international entity. One band-mate comments that since Pena’s induction into the group, Journey’s fan base has become “over 20% Filipino.” Proudly showing off a banner she’s created for Pineda outside their concert venue, a motherly Filipino fan proclaims, “When Journey found him, they inherited a nation.”

Moments like this elevate “Don’t Stop Believin’” beyond its safe, sterile baseline. There’s some potentially fertile ground here, but it’s mostly left untouched. As it stands, I left the movie hungering for a more daring look at this infinitely likable singer and his resilient band (according to the film, Journey’s trademark track “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the most downloaded song in the twentieth century).

I would love to have Arnel Pineda as a friend and neighbor. But I’m not as enthusiastic about watching another movie about him, unless it cuts deeper than this one.

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