What could easily have been a five-minute film - rock band finds leadsinger through You Tube - is a much bigger story because of the camera's unfettered love for Arnel Pineda. Arnel returns the affection by being the most candid and open human being I've ever had the privilege to film. - - Ramona Diaz, filmmaker
This film transcends generations. On one hand, this is a documentary for the post-YouTube, post-American Idol generation. It is an aspirational, rags-to-riches story set against the backdrop of some of the most anthemic songs of recent rock n’ roll history. This generation may not necessarily know the provenance of the songs, but they know they’ve heard it somewhere before – at a ball game, as a soundtrack to a movie, TV show (including the last episode of the Sopranos) or a commercial, on their parents’ Ipod.
On the other hand, it is for their elders – their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles – whose memories dance with images of Camaros, platform shoes, and Miami Vice.
How it started: halfway around the world Journey, the iconic, quintessentially American rock band who recorded 8 platinum-certified albums during their heyday between 1978–1986, has chosen a lead singer in a manner befitting this internet age: they found him through YouTube.
Filipino Arnel Pineda had been singing Journey songs for many years with his cover band Zoo in clubs all over Manila, his hometown, and posting their performances on YouTube. Arnel grew up in poverty; his mother died when he was 12 years old and he ended up on the streets. “ I would hang out with my friends and they would make me sing in exchange for food. I’d tag along just so I could eat. Then we would go to the park and I’d sleep there with other homeless kids.” He worked at the pier in Manila Bay gathering scrap metal, bottles, and newspapers for eight pesos (20 cents) a day. At night, he would roam the bars in bohemian Manila, singing here and there, meeting other urban nomads with whom he would, over the years, form – and dissolve – bands. In 1991, he relocated to Hong Kong where he would live and perform for fifteen years. He lost his voice twice in the intervening years: once in 1995 due to drugs and alcohol and again in 2005 due to exhaustion and TMJ dysfunction. He decided to move back to Manila in 2006. By then he “had a little dream to make it big in the Philippines, just alone in the Philippines. Suddenly, I got this call from Neal Schon, and here I am.”
Neal Schon, Journey’s legendary guitarist, was half a world away in Northern California. He was frustrated about not having found a lead singer. Since the band’s most famous and distinctive frontman Steve Perry–whose power ballads catapulted the band to super stardom, filling stadiums all over the country – exited the band in the 90’s, it had been a revolving door for Journey vocalists. “I was pretty much aware of everybody out there. There’re plenty of guys that you could use to get through a tour. I was looking for something a little more special than that.” Schon decided to trawl the Internet for singers and there, after days of looking and almost giving up, he discovered Arnel covering Journey songs with his band in Manila.
“After watching the videos over and over again, I had to walk away from the computer and let what I heard sink in because it sounded too good to be true. I thought, ’he can't be that good.’ I tried to get a hold of him and I finally heard from him that night, but it took some convincing to get him to believe that it really was me and not an impostor.” After literally singing for his US visa and a couple of live auditions and recording sessions later, Arnel was offered the gig as Journey’s frontman.
MEDIA ATTENTION & FAN ADULATION
As the mainstream took notice, Journey found itself in a media moment. They were on television for the first time since 1981; GQ did a spread; People Magazine photographed them as they rehearsed. Even Rolling Stones “who’s never cared for Journey in our entire career,” quips bass guitarist Ross Valory, came calling.
Will this be the “Resurgence of Journey,” as keyboardist and songwriter Jonathan Cain claims? “He’s completely rejuvenated the band – he’s got so much energy, he’s really got the performer blood in him. The guy’s the future of our franchise.” By all indications, the fans have remained loyal and new ones have been found: it just might be the beginning of their second act. When Revelation, their 2’disc CD and DVD set was released on June 4, 2008 it was a New York Times critics’ choice, selling 45,000 albums in its first three days on sale, despite being offered exclusively though Walmart stores, enough units for it to debut at number five on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. (The album was eventually nominated for Classic Rock Magazine's Album of the Year and certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.)
QUESTIONS & DOUBTS PERSIST
And what do the considerable number of hardcore Journey fans worldwide ’ many of whom still long for Steve Perry ’ think of this new hire? The blogs are abuzz and there is, as Paul Liberatore of the Marin Independent Journal puts it, “an undercurrent of racism among some Journey fans.” “It’s both a blessing and a curse” says Arnel, “because up there on the stage I’ll be facing a lot of hard core Journey fans who will be comparing me to “the voice,” Steve Perry. Not only am I not Perry, I’m not even white. But it’s okay, it’s okay, I’ll take that hit head on.”
And what of Arnel Pineda himself? In this age of globalization, how will a non’white foreigner fronting a classic American band change the very nature of the group and possibly expand its fan base? How will he successfully sell songs about being “born and raised in South Detroit”? On the eve of the tour, Arnel teeters between being overwhelmed – “Until now, I can’t believe I’m rock and rolling with these legends” – and, like the seasoned professional that he is, being realistic. “It’s a job that I have to do well. But everything that has a beginning has an end. When all this craziness is over, I’ll just go back to the basics.” And, more urgently, will his voice hold? “I sure hope so,” he reassures himself.
On a more personal end, how long will this dream last and can he live up to expectations? Right now, he is like a kid in a candy store living out his dream, but he is also weathered and homesick with no real family around him, and even he is not sure how long this will last. Given the fickle nature of fate, will he able to remain the tremendous source of pride for his country, not to mention his deceased mother and three kids, who are the inspiration behind his hard work? Or will his superstar status fizzle before it even sizzles? As the band tries to navigate the difficult task of preserving a legacy and moving on with their new “Thrilla of Manila”at the same time, can they turn this media moment into something more than just a footnote in their thirty-year career? Will Arnel return home with Journey, to the place where it all started, a global superstar? And just how will his journey affect him and the band? Only time will tell.