It was one of the most remarkable human-interest stories of 2007. Guitarist Neal Schon, in need of a new lead singer for the classic rock band Journey, scoured YouTube until he found Arnel Pineda, a small-framed, long-haired, 40-year-old Filipino belting out uncannily credible covers of Journey songs. Hoping to capitalize on the renewed interest in Journey in the wake of the song “Don’t Stop Believin’” appearing in The Sopranos’ finale, Schon convinced his mates to give Pineda a tryout, and soon the Manila native was in the band, adding vocals to Journey’s already-in-progress album Revelation, and fronting the group on a world tour. Both the record and the concerts were huge hits, and Pineda has remained Journey’s lead singer.
How’s it going for Pineda and Journey today? That’s a question beyond the scope of Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, which instead sticks with the collaboration’s initial phenomenal success. Diaz has no illusions that Pineda’s position is anything but a business arrangement. She tracks the history of Journey, which spent a few years as a progressive jam band before hiring singer Steve Perry in the mid-’70s and transitioning to being a stadium-filling hitmaker—then moved on without Perry in the mid-’90s when health problems prevented him from touring. It’s clear Pineda is just one in a line of vocalists for Journey, and in the documentary, he comes off as a dutiful employee, taking care of his voice and doing exactly what he’s told, in exchange for a piece of an unexpectedly substantial pie. But Diaz still emphasizes the uplifting aspects of Pineda’s Journey experience, describing how he came from poverty and delinquency, before he dedicated himself to his craft, caught a lucky break, and became an inspiration to struggling nobodies everywhere.
It’s hard not to feel that there’s something missing from Don’t Stop Believin’, though. The movie doesn’t necessarily need to be dark, but Diaz barely touches on the downside of the Internet age—such as the nasty messages Pineda received from racist Journey fans—or how it feels to sing someone else’s words in someone else’s voice, night after night. There’s no comment from Perry, or Steve Augeri (the man who first replaced Perry), or Jeremy Hunsicker (the Perry sound-alike who was originally going to front the band for Revelation and its ensuing tour). And while Pineda is a likeable guy who seems to have been treated well by an appreciative Schon and company, the ensemble doesn’t seem like a band so much as a bunch of genial co-workers, just trying to get through the daily grind. Don’t Stop Believin’ could’ve used more scenes like the one late in the film where Pineda bumps into the man who replaced Peter Cetera in Chicago. The two share a fraternal hug, but a long, frank conversation between these substitutes likely would’ve deepened the movie considerably.