By now the tale has become legend: in 2007 the American band Journey went on search of a new lead singer and in the midst of a frustrating process, guitarist Neal Schon happened upon YouTube clips of an unknown Filipino singer with a voice of gold named Arnel Pineda, belting out Journey tunes with a cover band in an obscure Manila bar. What happened next is a story for the ages, a Cinderella, rags-to-riches tale, where six years later, Pineda is front-man for one of the globe’s most popular bands.
This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Ramona Diaz’s thrilling and award-winning documentary, “Don’t Stop Believin: Everyman’s Journey,” an intimate, and rocking look into the whirlwind life of Arnel Pineda, as he takes the reigns of one of rock’s most beloved bands. Embedded with Journey while on world tour, and capturing all of the drama and excitement of a band reborn, Diaz tells the tale not only of Pineda’s rise to stardom, but a larger story of the collision of technology, race, stardom and fate.
You have a great story of how you first heard about Arnel Pineda which encapsulates so well the confluence of community, technology and fate that has propelled him onto the world stage. Did this all really start from a forwarded email?
RD: Actually it was a forwarded email from the immigration officer at the American Embassy in Manila who ended up giving Arnel his visa to travel to San Francisco to audition for the band. Yes, it all started with this email that went viral within the Filipino and Filipino American community. At the bottom of the email was the same link that Neal Schon, the member of Journey who “discovered” Arnel on You Tube, clicked on: Arnel singing “Faithfully”. I got goose bumps and my filmmaker radar was immediately activated. Although at that point I knew perfectly well that it could also have been a short story – “iconic American turns to You Tube to find their lead singer” – and that would have been that, fifteen minutes tops. It was when I met Arnel for the first time (up in Northern California rehearsing with the band before their Revelation Tour in 2008) that I knew there was a longer story to be told. Arnel was very open and articulate about his inner life and that’s documentary gold.
In this film, you’ve not only made a rock documentary about one of the most beloved bands of all time, but also an exploration of how globalization, culture and race intersect in unexpected ways. How did you find the balance between making a thrilling music film but also investing it with so much commentary on the larger world we live in?
RD: I guess being an Asian American, culture and race will always inform my work. Some are more explicit explorations of these topics, and some more subtle. In this instance, the story is so much a part of the world we live in – You Tube, social media, “American Idol“-driven stardom – that it was almost an impossibility for the film to not comment on the now, it was organic to the story. The fact is this story would not have been possible fifteen years ago. It’s a real-time snapshot of the times we are living with, and how seemingly accessible the rest of the world is – even to a Filipino singer performing in marginalized bars in the back streets of Manila. And the real zinger is that Journey happens to be a classic American rock band, and culture and race are bound to collide. Now if Arnel had been recruited to be a lounge singer in Vegas, that would have been a completely different story.
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This film was several years in the making; how did you work with Journey and its management to gain access to the band, and be present for so many private, back-stage moments? And how did Steve Perry, the original singer for Journey figure into how you constructed the film?
RD: Access was a process. When they first agreed to do the project, I’m not sure that they knew we were going to be sticking around for a long time. Up to that point, they were used to the big networks coming in for a day or two, to do a feature, and then leaving. It was a steep learning curve for the band and for us, the filmmakers, as well. We had to learn the norms and protocols of a big tour, we had to learn to wear black all the time, and learn that we couldn’t schedule interviews until after one in the afternoon.
Access to Arnel was key of course. In 2008, his first year with the band, he traveled without an entourage. He was alone in his dressing for the most part. We became his entourage (sort of), his sounding board. The fact that he and I could lapse into Filipino helped a lot, it was our go-to space. It would have been different had we filmed the next year because by then he was traveling with his family and he had his own roadie (who you meet at the end of the film). The dynamic would have been completely different.
The band’s history with Steve Perry is very complicated and, frankly, it deserves a film of its own. I believe to have gone down that road, even if just a little bit, would have unraveled the film. My impetus for wanting to tell this story was Arnel and Journey today, not Journey yesterday. I deal with the band’s history only to give non-Journey fans some context. That’s not to negate Steve Perry’s role in Journey in any way. That’s a larger tale that deserves a closer and more profound examination than this film could ever have done in any meaningful way.
As we see in the film, Journey has gained an enormous, new audience amongst Filipinos worldwide, since Arnel joined the band. Were you a fan of Journey before starting this film? Did listening to all of their hits in a new light, from “Open Arms” to “Faithfully” to the classic “Don’t Stop Believin” conjure up any memories for you?
RD: Of course Journey’s songs conjure up memories for me! After making the film and spending time with them and really getting to know the band’s history, I have tremendous respect for what they have been able to create. They have an entire catalogue of songs – not one or two songs, but an entire catalogue – of timeless hits. These songs work every time, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. How does one do that? That is quiet a feat.
What are you working on next?
RD: I’m working on a film about reproductive justice. From rock and roll to reproductive justice. Yes. The film, tentatively titled “The Bill,” has already gotten R&D funding from Sundance, ITVS and Chicken and Egg. I hope to finish it this year.
I’m also now writing a screenplay – a historical, political film. Can’t say much about it yet but it’s exciting to revisit a time and place I’ve obsessed about for so long. I’ve finally found the voice to fashion it into a cinematic tale. We’ll see…