Screens tonight, June 18, at 7 PM, and Sunday, June 24, at 12:15 PM
Picking the opening-night film for a documentary film festival is no easy task. With festivals that specialize in narrative film, it tends to be about whose name will look best on the marquee opening night. But documentary filmmaking has precious few celebrity directors, so that changes the rules a little. Add to that the fact that such a large percentage of documentaries focus on extremely depressing socio-political issues, and that reduces your options further; after all, these screenings are usually followed by opening-night parties, and no one’s really in the mood for hors d’oeuvres and small talk after watching a vivid two-hour dissection of brutal genocide in a Third World country. The mandate: Keep it light.
In that spirit, the opening night of the annual AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs festival this evening offers up a film that follows in the tradition of recent opening-night picks like The Swell Season and More Than a Game, sidestepping politics for music/sport and offering a film that’s light on insight but big on emotion. This year’s selection, director Ramona S. Diaz’s Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, documents the rock band Journey as they assimilate a new lead singer, Arnel Pineda, into the mix for a new tour and new albums. The hook? Pineda was but a poor, struggling cover band singer in the Philippines when Journey discovered him via YouTube—and he’s now suddenly the frontman of one of the most iconic touring bands in the world.
The basic statement of purpose for the film is articulated up front by the band’s keyboardist and rhythm guitarist, Jonathan Cain: “How do you take a guy from the Third World and throw him in the rock-and-roll circus?” With that in mind, the film starts out showing how late one night while looking at Journey cover bands on YouTube, lead guitarist Neal Schon stumbled on a slew of low-quality videos a friend of Pinedas’s had uploaded. The videos weren’t great, but Pineda’s voice? Impressive enough that the band flew him to San Francisco to audition.
He gets the gig, and the film, on the heels of that teaser from Cain, sets itself up as the small-town boy’s struggle to deal with the pressures and culture shock of suddenly touring with a major rock band. (If you’re wondering to yourself how Journey still qualifies as a major band nearly three decades after their last hit, consider for a moment that their iconic “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the single most downloaded track on iTunes in history. They can still sell out 15,000-seat arenas around the world.) Unfortunately, the filmmakers run into a bit of a problem here: Apart from the usual fatigue of the road, a head cold, and missing home and his family, Pineda appears to have it just fine.
He’s nerve-wracked before his first show, but it goes smoothly, despite the band’s insistence that he jumped around too much. He talks about the temptations of the road but appears to have zero trouble ignoring them. At the end of the day, this is a simple feel-good story about a guy who is the manifestation of Willy Wonka’s line near the end of Charlie and the Chocolate factory: “Remember what happened to the man who suddenly found out that he got everything that he ever wanted? He lived happily ever after.”
Without any real conflict, there’s about enough story here for 45 minutes to an hour of movie, after which the filmmakers pad it out to a full hour and a half with a brief history of Journey pre-Pineda and scattered scenes from the tour and Pineda’s new life with a big house and security back in the Philippines. The film isn’t entirely memorable, and gets a little repetitive after a while, but it will put a smile on your face and warm fuzzies in your heart—which, for opening night, is exactly what the festival is looking for.
For more information about this week’s festival, visit Silverdocs.com.