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Review: Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey

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[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical/VOD release of Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.]

Sometimes I feel bad about using the adjective “feel good.” Whenever I hear the phrase “feel good movie,” it immediately conjures up images of treacly, saccharine, unsatisfying dreck that deals in cliches and simple, familiar comforts. But Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey is a feel-good movie in a good way.

It’s the unlikely tale of Arnel Pineda, the new lead singer of Journey, who was discovered on YouTube. I didn’t even realize Journey had a new lead singer, though to be fair, I’m casual fan at best, and don’t really follow news on Steve Perry. (And by casual Journey fan, I mean I will sing along with “Don’t Stop Believin'” or “Any Way You Want It” if I hear it in a bar.)

If the movie deals in any sorts of familiar comforts, it’s the kind that are inspirational because they are improbable: Cinderella stories, Horatio Alger stories, local boy makes good stories. This is the stuff that arena rock dreams are made of.

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Director: Ramona Diaz
Rating: NR
Release Date: March 8, 2013 (theatrical); March 9, 2013 (VOD)

Arnel Pineda’s story is beautifully improbable: hard times growing up in the Philippines, a singing career that really went nowhere, a sudden shot at the big-time. He admits that he was close to quitting the whole musician thing until he got a call from Journey guitarist Neal Schon. The band was looking to tour again and found his clips on YouTube. What’s interesting in these YouTube clips is Pineda’s ability to mimic other singers. He’s got strong pipes that allow him to do Bon Jovi and Steve Perry with surprisingly accurate vigor. If you do a Pepsi challenge with Pineda and Perry, you can tell the difference: Perry’s a little more delicate, Pineda’s got lots of heft in the throat.

There’s a bit of parallel construction when it comes to Pineda’s biography and the biography of the band. Here’s where Ramona Diaz’s direction is extremely strong. Journey’s beginning and stratospheric success serve as a strong counterpoint to the abject poverty that Pineda faced growing up — sort of a contrast between the highs of the first world and the lows of the third world. Journey’s decline is also joined to Pineda’s struggles later in life, which is another fine parallel construction.

The cultural divide leads to funny bits early on. If I’m remembering it right, bassist Ross Valory expresses concerns over Pineda’s grasp of English. Pineda’s English is fine, his Filipino accent thick when he speaks but undetectable when he’s belting it out. He sounds like a city boy etc. Pineda’s shocked he got the gig, joking that he looks like he’s photoshopped into the band. And honestly, he sort of does, and it’s this self-deprecation and self-awareness that make Pineda an interesting subject for a film.

It’s hard not to like Pineda throughout Don’t Stop Believin’. He reminds me of a few of my cousins, actually. He’s been humbled by his years barely making it, so there’s a constant sense of disbelief wherever he goes. He’s like Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — you pull for him because he’s wanted it all his life and finally gets it. Like the kids who survive children’s stories and fairy tales, he’s good at heart. And you know what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.

But actually, it’s not so simple. After the initial shock and surprise of this union, we get to see how Pineda fares on tour. He’s got to pass muster with thousands of fans on the road, and also the newfound Filipino fan base since he’s joined. The film turns from a straight up Cinderella story to a sort of Cinderella tour documentary. It’s all routine for the rest of the band, with Schon and Valory talking about the way you need to be built for the lifestyle and how the road can really break you in the end. Since Pineda’s not too familiar with the rigors of the road or the demands of a major arena rock gig, it’s fascinating to see how he responds to the pressure.

Little dramas arise involving colds, loneliness, and newfound fame. All the while, Pineda seems in a daze of disbelief (or fatigue). He’s also more critical of himself than other people in the band given his unlikely story and the big shoes that Steve Perry left behind. Maybe the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted lived happily ever after, but in real life, happy endings tend to have their ups and downs. He’ll make it, or at least you hope he will, though you wonder how he’ll be affected in the long run.

As Don’t Stop Believin’ winds down, it seems to get a bit loose with its structure and focus. If the film were like a concert, this penultimate part of the movie would be like the perfunctory break before the encore. The audience applauds expectantly, but they really want to see one or two more songs and go out on a high note. Meanwhile, Journey takes a breather, unwinds, drinks some water and towels off. When they come back and close it out, they do just what you wanted to hear. (Hint: It’s not “Any Way You Want It.”)

I was talking to our own Alec Kubas-Meyer about the movie at the fest and he asked about the YouTube singer phenomenon and if that’s explored at all. It’s not really, though Justin Bieber’s name is mentioned briefly in the film as a nice acknowledgment of it. I suppose Diaz could have done that, but really, that’s something for a different movie with a different focus. (I’d hope Pineda winds up in that one, though.)

I say that because Don’t Stop Believin’ is an unrepentant feel-good movie rather than an exploration of online phenomena. It’s like a good pop song: it’s about something you know (love, heartbreak, ambition, good times, bad times) and it hooks you not because of the familiarity but because it expresses what it says with something genuine. When you get hooked by it, it’s hard to resist the urge to sway with it or sing along.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.