Talk about a great story just falling into your lap.
Baltimore filmmaker Ramona Diaz can't help but chuckle while recounting how she first heard about Arnel Pineda, the unlikely successor to Steve Perry as lead singer for Journey and the subject of her latest documentary, "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey," which is showing Tuesday at the Charles Theatre.
"I heard about Arnel getting the gig through an unsolicited email," she says, "that connected me with a link that was sort of going viral among the Filipino community."
Not, she says, that she normally pays attention to unsolicited emails or habitually clicks on links contained therein. But it's a good thing she did this time, even though the link left out a crucial piece of information: It didn't reveal whether Pineda got the gig with Journey or not.
"I clicked, and I saw Arnel sing," says Diaz, who emigrated from the Philippines in the early 1980s to attend college. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness. There's a film here somewhere. If this guy got the gig, there's a film here.' "
What Diaz saw and heard were the basic outlines of an amazing story: a young man from the poverty-stricken streets of Manila goes, seemingly overnight, from singing in a rock 'n' roll cover band to fronting one of the most durable and successful bands in rock history. Thanks to a voice with an incredible vocal range — anyone who's ever heard Perry wail through Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" knows the tough act Pineda had to follow — and a YouTube video that Journey guitarist Neal Schon happened upon while trolling the Internet one evening, Pineda went from performing in bars for a few dozen people to singing "Open Arms" and other Journey hits in stadiums packed with thousands of screaming fans.
Beginning in May 2008, Diaz and her cameras got to chronicle it all — the initial skepticism over whether this unknown could really match Perry's vocal chops (he could, to an amazing degree), whether he had the stage presence to front a band (he does), whether he even knew enough English to handle the job (he did, though perhaps barely).
Like Journey's fans, many of whom who seem to have embraced Pineda unreservedly, Diaz says she found him energetic, refreshing and candid. This guy was clearly having the time of his life, and was happy telling Diaz and her cameras all about it.
"He was very open," she says. "There were no filters on Arnel the first time I met him. And there continued to be none throughout the time that we filmed him, which was over two years. He comes from a very honest place. There was no pretense — I think the camera really picks up if you are pretending. I was very taken with him."
Similarly, she says, the other members of Journey also welcomed her cameras, at least after she overcame some initial reluctance on their part. After approaching Journey's management and insisting there was a film to be made here, she was asked to come along, spend 24 hours with the band as they performed in Northern California, then submit a 10-minute test film so they could see how she did.
Apparently, they liked what they saw. "Twenty-four hours later, they were like, 'Come on board,'" Diaz remembers. "So we jumped right in."
Happily, Diaz was uniquely qualified to tell Pineda's story. For one, of course, she's Filipino, like he is. As a director, she's used to working around high-wattage personalities; the film that earned her initial acclaim in the world of documentary filmmaking was 2003's "Imelda," about the shoe-crazy former first lady of the Philippines. And because she spoke the Tagalog language used in the Philippines, she was able to follow Pineda as he excitedly spoke about his concert experiences.
"The part of the film where he talks about his first time performing … that's both in Tagalog and English, he goes back and forth," Diaz explains. "I don't think he could have been that articulate, in really getting to the essence of how he felt, if he only had English to fall back on. He felt comfortable explaining his thoughts and his feelings in Tagalog."
Since debuting at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, "Don't Stop Believin'" has already had a limited theatrical release (though not in Baltimore) and is available on various digital platforms, including Amazon, iTunes and Video-on-Demand. The film has had mixed reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it "a pleasant story of dreams coming true," while the New York Times said it had a "relentlessly sunny and self-serving narrative."
What viewers will find is a rock documentary you don't need to be a rock fan to appreciate.
"Even if you're not a Journey fan, you'll get different things out of it," says Diaz, who already is working on two more projects — a political thriller that will be her first narrative feature, and a documentary on the fight for reproductive rights. "Some people get the Cinderella story," she said. "Some people get the Arnel-trapped-in-a-big-gig story. Whatever you bring into it, you get out of it."
Although she had heard of Journey before ("If you've been to a wedding or a prom in this country," she said, "you're familiar with Journey music."), Diaz says she wasn't very familiar with arena-rock culture. As a documentary filmmaker, she enjoys journeying outside her comfort zone. Like Pineda, who unreservedly threw himself into a situation for which he could have been woefully under-prepared, she finds the thrill of uncertainty — and the triumph of conquering it — exhilarating.
"That's why I'm a documentary filmmaker," she says. "The process of discovery is always very interesting. You do it because you go into worlds you would otherwise not experience — that's why I love making these kinds of films."
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