First, let’s get the white, bell-bottomed elephant out of the room. Steve Perry, one of the great voices of arena rock, is praised early and often in “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” this inspiring if sometimes slightly by-the-numbers documentary about the rise of his replacement, Arnel Pineda.
We even get to see clips of Perry during Journey’s late-’70s/early-’80s heyday. That’s a good thing, because Perry, the Howard Hughes of feather-haired rock, can’t be ignored. His voice defined one of the biggest bands of an era. It’s also a key reason why the tale of Pineda, who debuted as the band’s lead singer in 2008, is so stunning. Whether you love Journey or find them too schmaltzy, Perry would appear up there with Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, and Steven Tyler as one of rock’s least-replaceable singers. The fact that Pineda has Perry down, whether hitting the high drama of “Open Arms” or the rat-a-tat phrasing of “Lights,” is no small feat. Pineda is also at least one hip replacement more nimble than the now-64-year-old belter, which has allowed Journey to return to an ambitious touring schedule.
So let’s talk about the movie. It takes its name from Journey’s 1981 hit, a song that’s become a part of pop culture as the anthem for the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the finale of “The Sopranos,” and the unofficial school fight song of “Glee.” For Pineda, the song provides its own inspiration. Here’s a kid from the Philippines who lost his mother at a young age, lived on the streets, and almost saw his music career fizzle in a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. Then he got discovered.
Directed by Ramona S. Diaz, the documentary is for more than Journey fans. It’s a tale that uses the common language of the overcoming-adversity doc. We see Pineda back in the Philippines, we see old clips from his previous bands, and we’re shown images of shirtless children wandering dirty alleyways in his native country. Who wouldn’t cheer for this guy (other than maybe Perry)?
Pineda’s got a baby face, slips in and out of English, and has a story that could make Horatio Alger blush. In the Internet age, the idea of a tribute band singer joining his real-life heroes is actually not unheard of. (See: Judas Priest and Boston.) But nobody has a story quite like Pineda’s.
He looks decades younger than the grizzled members of Journey, but Pineda’s no rookie. He was 39 when, in 2007, a friend posted a series of YouTube videos showing him singing, among other tunes, several Journey songs.
Neal Schon, the band’s guitarist and chief songwriter, happened to be surfing the Net. Perry had left in 1998. Two other replacements had come and gone.
“It’s like 12 o’clock at night,” keyboardist Jonathan Cain says. “Neal calls me. I found this kid on YouTube. It’s in Manila. I get online in the office. I look, I listen. I call him back. Kid can sing. Great voice. Unbelievable. But can he speak English?”
Diaz made “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” not knowing whether Journey would approve the film and allow her to use the band’s music. In reality, the band would have been nuts to block her. “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” is a tear-jerking promotional tool, in a way, and it’s no surprise band manager John Baruch is listed as an executive producer. Could Diaz have covered the controversy surrounding Perry more? Definitely. She shows the viewer a computer screen with a few anti-Pineda posts – crude, racist cracks from people who appear to have left their copies of Strunk & White at home – and lets Pineda stick a pin in the hate balloon. But the film would have benefited from giving voice to a few legitimate fans who could argue that Journey without Perry is like Queen fronted by Paul Rogers.
In the end, that debate might not matter, anyway. What makes “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” work is that we’re along for every step of Pineda’s journey, from his not-so-stunning first day of auditioning to his performances in front of huge crowds to his backstage massages from a masseuse (presumably the band’s). We root for him, we feel his love for the music, and realize that whether Journey continues to thrive — or goes the way of Loverboy — at least Pineda got a chance to live out his rock ’n’ roll fantasy.