Film Review: Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey

Real-life Cinderella story with quiet emotion and a down-to-earth working band make this rock documentary far more than an episode of "Behind the Music."

Fairytales can come true, it can happen to you, if you're young at heart. So crooned one great singer unknowingly about another. The story of Arnel Pineda, a hardscrabble, Filipino cover-band singer plucked through a fan's YouTube videos to become lead singer of one of rock's most popular and successful bands, shows that sometimes, well, you can go to extremes with impossible schemes.

Anyone with a phonograph or a CD player in the 1970s and 1980s went through the heyday of Journey, the arena-rock band whose ballsy, melodic tunes of yearning and youthful angst propelled "Wheel in the Sky," "Any Way You Want It," "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," "Lights" and—perhaps most famously after the finale of TV's "The Sopranos"—"Don't Stop Believin'" onto the rock charts. Lead singer Steve Perry's pure, evocative tenor—the tremolos and trills of young men who "want to get back to my city by the bay," because "you think you're lonely? Well, my friend, I'm lonely, too"—was romantic hokum you could believe in. Even at their most rocking, these were songs to stand on hillsides with, the wind in your hair as early dusk settles in, as you looked out on the world below and maybe, just maybe, if you squinted just right, you could see your future.

Whatever future Pineda had before being discovered in 2007 by Journey guitarist Neal Schon—who was searching for a new lead singer after Perry left for good in the ’90s and his replacement, Steve Augeri, lost his voice in 2006—wasn't anything like what the band sings about. He had left his impoverished family before turning 14, living on the streets of Manila and, with friends, literally singing for his supper and any other meal he could get. His endlessly adaptable voice eventually found him regular work with a band, letting him earn enough to reunite a scattered family—five people in a single room representing luxury accommodations.

Not unusually for the music business, he went through drugs, drinking and a first marriage he describes as "depressing." A 15-year stint in Hong Kong singing nightly ended with a doctor telling him his voice was gone. Pineda persevered, and after a six-month respite was back in form. Still, by the time he met his future wife, Cherry, he'd gone through his savings and was only performing a couple of nights a week. After 25 years he was about to give up—and then his friend and fan Noel Gomez, who'd uploaded dozens of YouTube videos of Pineda performing, got an e-mail and then a phone call from Schon. Once convinced this wasn't a hoax, Pineda auditioned in San Francisco, the band's home base, and, as covered extensively in the press at the time, became not only the band's new lead singer but the engine of its greatest touring success.

The documentary's two filmmakers went on the road with the band, capturing Pineda's shy but enthusiastic absorption into what the group's manager, John Baruck, calls "a full member of Journey" who earns the same fifth of the profits as the other four members. Offstage, Pineda never quite seems to believe his good fortune, expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment—seeing himself in a group photo, he says it looks as if he's been Photoshopped in. The band is both appreciative and a bit older brother-ish toward him. If he—or for that matter any of the band—indulges in rock excesses, we don't see it, though that's hardly unusual with a band whose members range from mid-40s (Pineda) to mid-60s (bassist Ross Valory and keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Jonathan Cain, the latter of whom looks Dorian Grayishly good for 63).

Schon is an astute chronicler of the band's vicissitudes, and shows hardheaded pragmatism when he says, "With our catalog it's sort etched in stone, it's classic rock, and [audiences are] used to hearing it one way and they want to hear it that way." At the same time, he recognizes that while they could have phoned it in and simply hired someone from a Journey tribute band or a session player to get through a tour, "I was looking for something a little more special than that."

The film sometimes gets repetitive with backstage shots of yet another dressing room and the same people doing the same things. One could argue that's just part of road life for a band, but the documentary still leaves routine questions unanswered. Valory, for instance, says relationships suffer while you're away—but do none of the rest have any functional family life? As well, the movie suffers from a dupey, poorly lit look that feels amateurish and is often hard to watch.

Still, Don't Stop Believin' ultimately succeeds through the sheer miraculousness of its Cinderella story, and its portrait of a supportive and admirably grown-up group of musicians who appear, at least, to be free of destructive ego. And then when everything reaches its climax with a full, uninterrupted rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'," well—if you're not air-drumming along, at least in your mind, then you just don't get it.