Undeniable Journey 

The unlikely second life of an arena-rock guilty pleasure.

Arnel Pineda

Arnel Pineda

Bands have been known to survive a lead singer change, but, like many not-really-that-interested onlookers, I never pegged Journey to be a good candidate for such an evolution. Singer Steve Perry's powerful but pristine pipes — heard on such late-'70s/early-'80s radio-rock hits as "Separate Ways" and "Any Way You Want It" — were the band, right?

Well, it turns out — as captured in the clumsily titled documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey — there are a few things that turn that assumption around. One is that — as better Journey scholars than I may have already known — the band existed for several years pre-Perry as a less successful, more prog-rockish entity. This gives guitarist Neil Schon a claim to ownership and gives the band a sense of identity even without Perry. Secondly, the band's dorky grandeur has aged better as a guilty pleasure than some other maligned blockbuster bands of their era. (Looking at you, Eagles.) And, third, did they ever luck into a singer.

Don't Stop Believin' spends a bit of time on band history, but mostly it's the story of Arnel Pineda, a Filipino cover-band singer who Schon discovered on YouTube while trolling for potential new frontmen. Schon, as he describes it, had looked at every clip using every search team he could think of. Close to giving up, he found a grainy video of Pineda with his "Zoo Band" playing at the Hard Rock Café in Manila, covering Journey's power ballad "Faithfully."

Schon was knocked out and forwarded the clip to bandmates and the band's manager, and soon they were flying Pineda to America for an audition. He got the job, and Schon got more than he expected. Rather than just allowing Journey to stay on the casino and state-fair circuit with an approximation of Perry's vocals, the Pineda-fronted band has returned to arenas and expanded the band's audience internationally.

Not only does the pint-sized Pineda sing the hell out of these vocally heavy songs, he also brings a new kind of smiling, leaping, "I can't believe this is happening to me" energy to the band — along with an undeniably appealing backstory. With Pineda at the helm, the band has become, arguably, more likable than during its heyday.

Don't Stop Believin' documents much of that initial, um, journey. We see home-movie quality footage from Pineda's first audition, where he seems legitimately excited by in-studio remnants of Schon's side project band Bad English. We see a debut concert in Chile, where he surprises the band by running and jumping all over the stage. (They ask him to tone it down, just a little.) We see him struggle with and then accept the charge to mimic the band's "legacy sound," humbly deal with resistance from longtime fans, and finally start to put his own imprint on the band.

The film feels a little too controlled. Perry is fully acknowledged, but the film never really delves into why he's no longer a member or, absent one stray comment from a fan who claims to know him, how he may feel about Pineda in his seat. But Pineda himself never seems contrived. Even a few years into his assignment, Pineda isn't jaded. "He still thinks he's auditioning," the band's manager says. "He doesn't get it. You are the lead singer for Journey."

Even the film's many moments of unintentional humor feel generous — laughing with, not at. We meet Noel Gomez, Arnel's pre-Journey "biggest fan," who had uploaded the clips Schon discovers. Pineda guilelessly credits Gomez — specifically "His dream that one day I will be famous" [emphasis mine] — for the opportunity. Before a concert in Los Angeles, Pineda meets the self-styled "guy who replaced Peter Cetera in Chicago." It's unclear if Pineda — who, it should be noted, does all his interviews for the film in Filipino — quite understands. He smiles, points at the man, and turns back to the camera: "The lead singer of Chicago!" And the anthemic new song we see the band enthusiastically record after the end credits is hilariously bad — like "We Built This City" bad — something Schon, at least, seems to sheepishly recognize, which doesn't stop him from concocting a killer solo for it.

Don't Stop Believin' doesn't really need the big screen or feature-film run-time. It could easily be shorter, could have used more performance material. But when Pineda finally takes the stage for an inevitable Manila homecoming concert and sings the title song in front of Filipino flags and thousands of cheering countrymen, you'll be glad you made it through.

Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey
Opening Friday, March 8th, Wolfchase

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