Film Review: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet

There are survivor tales, and then there is Jason Becker’s, utterly jaw-dropping in its inspiration.

The ecstatic virtuoso guitar riffing of the achingly young Jason Becker once had the attention of the entire rock-music world. However, at the age of 19, on the verge of his first major gig touring with David Lee Roth, he contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease), literally paralyzing him with nothing but an early death to look forward to. Twenty years later, he is, somehow, still alive. First-time director Jesse Vile tells his story.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet begins with a child prodigy in Richmond, California, who from the age of five displayed brilliance on the guitar. By twelve, he was skillfully aping Eric Clapton and making local audiences swoon. Shrapnel Records founder Mike Varney signed him to a contract and he graduated early from high school to go on tour and record three impressive records. Big-time fame would be his with the Roth association, but then it all went south.

Luckily, a plethora of home movies of Becker performing from the earliest age survives, largely because of his infinitely supportive parents, Gary and Patricia, and the footage gives you a clear idea of his genius. And Jason himself survives, largely through their efforts. Although they worry about what will happen when they get older and will no longer have the strength and wherewithal to deal with the challenge of caring for him, they seem to really have no time for such thoughts given their day-to-day reality. Gary devised an ingenious way for Jason to communicate, through an alphabet based solely on the movement of his eyes, and when you see the two of them in action, communicating so fully, it almost makes something like The Miracle Worker seem like small potatoes.

It seemingly takes a village to keep Jason alive; even ex-girlfriends are involved, with one, Serrana Pilar, concocting a special nutrient-rich smoothie which has helped transform the musician from a haggard wraith to the almost Buddha-like, bloomingly ageless presence he is today. Ironically, his frozen, cherubic expression is identical to the ones he once self-consciously struck to pose glamorously deadpan for the covers of music magazines in his teens. It’s all a very DIY endeavor for this small army of helpers, as there is pitifully little real information about how to care for victims of this disease.

Vile unfortunately reveals his tyro filmmaker status with repetitive footage, cornball drawings of a broken guitar—as if we needed such symbolism—and other missteps, but there’s no denying that he has a great, truly inspiring subject. When you see the mute, immobile but still bright-eyed Becker, still managing, with the devoted Gary’s help, to compose music and attending an adoring concert in his honor, you marvel at this human miracle, the love and support he has inspired and, sadly, wonder about a medical system which has hardly begun to address those suffering from ALS in a really helpful way.