x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The incredible journey of Arnel Pineda

A documentary on the unlikely rise of a singer in Philippines to frontman of the US band journey finally hits theatres.

Journey in Manila, with Arnel Pineda, centre. Courtesy Emerging Pictures
Journey in Manila, with Arnel Pineda, centre. Courtesy Emerging Pictures

In between gigs, a young prince of rock 'n' roll sinks into his cushions and sighs.

"I'm living a fairy tale right now."

Truly, Arnel Pineda's life story is the stuff of fairy tales - a poor boy with a golden voice finds his way to become the lead singer of a legendary rock band. It's a modern day, real-life Cinderella story, not to mention a version of the 2001 Mark Wahlberg film Rock Star, which in turn was based on the heavy metal group Judas Priest, who replaced their frontman with one found performing in a tribute band.

Pineda's story unfolds in the documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, which was an official selection last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and the winner of the Audience Award at the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film has just gone on wide release in cinemas in the US.

Brace yourself for a goosebumpy ride. The film goes on the road with Journey, criss-crossing hemispheres and timelines, to chronicle the intersecting destinies of Pineda and the iconic rock band in this age of the internet and social media.

The central story that started it all is itself an internet legend. Back in the summer of 2007, the members of Journey, who got together in 1973 and disbanded several times in the ensuing decades, began searching for a new lead singer. It was a tall order considering the anointed one would be stepping into the very big shoes of departed singer Steve Perry. The group, who hit the height of their popularity in the early 1980s with big, rich rock hits including Open Arms, Faithfully and Don't Stop Believin', have sold more than 80 million albums worldwide.

After trawling YouTube for possible leads and almost ready to give up, the lead guitarist Neal Schon clicked on one last video. There popped up Pineda onstage in the Philippines, singing Journey cover songs for his band The Zoo. "This is too good to be true," said Schon.

Emails were sent, and soon an incredulous Pineda found himself in San Francisco to audition for the lead role.

Voice for a visa

The film's director Ramona S Diaz recounts how she was first inspired to make the documentary. In 2008, she received an email from a friend in Manila with the title "Best US Embassy Visa Application Story". Written by one of the immigration agents at the American Embassy in Manila, it was about Pineda, who said that the reason he was going to the US was that he was invited by Journey to audition for lead vocals.

"Journey? The rock band Journey?" the dubious agent had asked, and Pineda could only nod meekly, producing some flimsy email correspondence from the band. So Pineda was asked to sing Wheel in the Sky. He belted it out loud enough for the entire waiting room to stop and listen.

"Look sir," said the agent, "there isn't a person in this embassy who would believe that story! So I'm giving you that visa. You're going to try out. And you're going to make it."

And make it he did.

Rags to riches to racism

Pineda, who once had to sing for food, who lost his mother when he was 13 and grew up in a family so poor his father had to send siblings to live with relatives, who quit school and struck out on his own to ease the burden, spending two years on the streets before finding some domestic success as a musician, today performs in front of thousands in sold-out concerts all over the world.

His story was covered in Rolling Stone, he performed at a Super Bowl pregame show and he was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Yet many times he'd still wonder if it was all a dream. In one scene, he says: "Why me? I'm short, I'm so Asian … it was like I was just edited in with Photoshop!"

Since 2007 Pineda has recorded two albums with the rejuvenated band: Revelation in 2008 and 2011's Eclipse. But Everyman is about life on the road, and in it the frontman proves an endearing, soulful character, a nice guy who suffered at an early age and is now reaping a lifetime's worth of good karma.

Says Diaz: "As we've travelled to film festivals the world over, it's apparent that audiences young and old feel a powerful kinship with Arnel. The bursts of applause and the standing ovations have overwhelmed us.

"Audiences truly like Arnel, they root for him because his success affirms that in this crazy world we live in, good things still happen to good people."

Now what fairy tale would be complete without a villain? Or in this story, villains - the haters, critics and downright racists who hurled their insults in cyberspace. If the internet was what got Pineda discovered, it was also where wickedness thrived - where such insults as "garbage," "impersonator" and "monkey" were slung.

"Arnel was very aware of that," says Diaz. "The internet has no gatekeeper. But he chose to ignore it, he knew he couldn't please everyone. He couldn't let that seep into his consciousness. Also, he had no time to focus on that because he was on tour."

It's an issue that Pineda addresses in the film. "There are people out there who want me to fail," he says. "I'm sticking to those people who believe in me."

Those people could translate into a whole country as his backup. As one Filipino fan commented in the film, when Journey chose Pineda for the lead, "they inherited a nation".

Rock 'n' road

So what was it like going on the road with Journey for a year? "It's really not glamorous," says Diaz. "They're working 24/7 for a two-hour act, every minute getting to those two hours on stage is hard work."

She was very impressed, however, describing the group as a "well-oiled machine with many moving parts".

As for the whole "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" cliché? Surprise, surprise - there wasn't even alcohol in the dressing room. "As the band has reached a certain level of maturity, they've passed all that - they were all sober."

Feel-good tale

During a gruelling year on the road, Diaz, of course, had no way of knowing how her film would end. "As a documentary filmmaker, one of the most exciting things about the process is not knowing how it's going to turn out," says Diaz. "Observing life as it unfolds through the camera's lens is a privilege."

Ultimately, Everyman's Journey is a feel-good film with a great soundtrack and a positive message. It shows the soft side of rock, seen in the warmth and enduring faith of the veteran rock stars Neal Schon, Ross Valory, Jon Cain, Deen Castronovo and the band manager John Baruck, in their fellowship of strings.

"No matter how clichéd it seems, it really is a story of never giving up," says Diaz. "Or, at the very least, surrounding yourself with friends who never stop believing in you."

artslife@thenational.ae

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