Journey has a unique place in American pop music history. It is a band with an incredibly dedicated fanbase, yet there really aren’t many people who generally dislike the band. At the very least, pretty much everyone loves the group’s signature song, Don’t Stop Belevin’, which is the most downloaded twentieth century song in history. For example, I went to an Armenian wedding last summer and one of the few English songs that was played — and the one that filled the dance floor for a singalong — was that ballad. People love Journey’s slick, corporate-friendly rock. It’s inexplicable, but undeniable.
Yet as I mentioned, Journey’s fanbase is insanely dedicated, and a majority has been waiting for the band to reunite with its iconic former lead singer, Steve Perry. After the band broke up in 1987, Perry reunited with the group for 1996’s Trial By Fire album, but he was unable to tour because of health reasons. The band moved on without him, recruiting Perry sound-a-like Steve Augeri in 1998 for tours and new albums, then Jeff Scott Soto in 2006 as a temporary replacement when Augeri had vocal problems. So when Journey had a deal in place to record a new album in 2008, they were more-or-less without a singer. At his wit’s end, guitarist Neal Schon resorted to looking on YouTube in desperation, and discovered that half a world away a struggling Filipino cover band singer named Arnel Pineda was the answer to his prayers. The documentary covers Pineda’s recruitment into the band and his first years on the road with one of the most popular rock bands in history.
The reason I’m giving you all this backstory is that Don’t Stop Belevin’: Everyman’s Journey doesn’t start to provide it until a half-hour into the documentary. In fact, one of the weakest aspects of the documentary is that it assumes you already know enough about Journey’s history to follow along, and doesn’t give a lot of the necessary band history until well into the documentary (actually, Soto’s time as lead singer isn’t mentioned at all).
But once the documentary starts rolling, it’s hard not to smile. Pineda refers to being plucked from obscurity as “living in a fairy tale” in his broken English and it’s hard to see it as any other way. After all, before Journey Pineda lived the whole Behind the Music experience… except without the success. Pineda takes us back to the streets he grew up on to show exactly where he came from. Once he does that it’s obvious why he wears his infectious smile throughout the documentary. He’s even charming as he describes his fears of failure, pointing out “I’m not even cute, I’m too short, and I’m so Asian,” as reasons why he’ll probably fail.
But he doesn’t. After a rough first day of audition he’s flawless from then on, even when he’s too jumpy during the first show (“Like David Lee Roth and Bruce Lee put together,” one band member describes it as) and when a cold that hits him during their first U.S. tour. There are multiple references to “haters” who didn’t want him in the band, but there isn’t much said from them except poorly written message board posts and a young American fan in a scene straight out of Heavy Metal Parking Lot who admits she likes Pineda “but it would be better if he was from here.” Yet one of pleasant surprises about Pineda joining the band is that he introduces the band to a huge international audience as Journey tries to remain relevant in the twenty-first century.
As a result, there’s little conflict in the documentary, even in the last twenty minutes when Pineda and his wife talk about the “temptations” of the road. It’s a bit too happy-go-lucky, but I guess that’s an appropriate tone for a documentary which is, in essence, a celebration. Yet it was incredible risk for Journey to take in an unproven lead singer from halfway around the world, especially when most of their fans want a reunion with Perry — it would’ve been interesting to hear more about that dilemma.
But as it is, Don’t Stop Belevin’ is a movie for those who dream of rags-to-riches success. Trust me, it’s not just for Journey fans.
Rating: A feel-good fairy tale success story backed by some great pop-rock music (8.5/10)
Tribeca Film Festival Screening Times
Saturday, April 21 2:30PM AMC Loews Village 7 – 3
Friday, April 27 8:30PM AMC Loews Village 7 – 3
Saturday, April 28 9:30PM SVA Theater 1 Silas