A Baltimorean tells the story of Journey's new frontman

Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey

Directed by Ramona Diaz

Playing at the Charles Theatre May 7

The idea for Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, Baltimore director Ramona Diaz says, began with a viral email from a Philippines-based American Embassy employee who detailed the story of a 40-year-old Filipino auditioning for the arena band Journey. "For some reason, I clicked on that email," Diaz says. "I had to see what this was about."

In 2007 Journey, approaching their 60s, had a late-career upswing. Thanks to the final episode of The Sopranos, the band's hit song "Don't Stop Believin'" was back in the American tape loop. There was demand for a monster tour, but they had no full-time singer. Their first singer, Steve Perry-responsible for the band's trademark sound-had an unamicable split with the group in 1998; their next singer, Steven Augeri, called it quits in 2006 after throat problems. Then guitarist Neal Schon found a 40-year-old Filipino singer on YouTube covering Journey tunes in Hong Kong. The unknown singer, Arnel Pineda, had little in the way of a resume but was able to channel Perry's voice. Soon, he found himself the frontman for the band.

Despite the documentary's name, Diaz emphasizes that this documentary isn't about the band Journey. It's the story of a Filipino called over to perform in front of packed stadiums of old school (and old) Journey fans. It's an uplifting, bizarre, and thought-provoking story of an outsider finding his place in a distinctly American culture.

City Paper: This was your first music documentary. You'd come up with a film on Baltimore schools [in 2011] and on Imelda Marcos [in 2003]. Now you're following an arena-rock band. How do you film a band on the road?

Ramona Diaz: It's like filming any other thing. It's not any different from filming kids in the classrooms, which is even harder, actually, than filming a well-oiled machine. Journey is very predictable. After awhile you know what's going to happen. You know that they are going to drive all night-depending on where you're going-check in, do soundchecks, come out, perform, get on buses, and do it all over again. It's not rocket science [laughs].

CP: Arnel [Pineda] must have had all sorts of feelings about jumping on this bandwagon. The money was good, but in this documentary of his first tour [2007], he seems unsure what his place is in this machine.

RD: Yeah. It's a thin line, a balancing act with Arnel. It is ambivalent because he found he needed to sing the legacy sound. . . . That's what the fans expect and that's what they give the fans. They've been successful every summer, and that's what Arnel signed up for. Where is his own voice in all of this? Not really anywhere. Now, is he going to complain because he's being paid millions of dollars to do it? You can't! You're between a rock and a hard place.

CP: I think of other rockumentaries I've seen. Some Kind of Monster seemed to be about a mid-life crisis, with a bunch of older guys in Metallica hitting their 40's and wondering whether to call it a day. But these people are beyond mid-life. These people seem a lot calmer.

RD: They are. They've seen it all. There's no angst. That's what they do every night. It's always the same. I mean, there are choices of which song goes where on the list. Those are the choices. And they're very finite choices. Because they know what the audience wants to hear and they cater to their fans. Their fans are loyal. They're like Deadheads. But they're bringing their kids now.

CP: How did Arnel change in the time you followed him?

RD: Well, we followed him to the end of his first year with Journey. He was still auditioning. He wasn't completely sure this was going to last forever. He's still not sure. He says that at the end of the documentary. Because he's not truly comfortable yet. I don't think he ever will be.

CP: I'll ask you, finally, what the title means. You call it Don't Stop Believin', but what are you supposed to believe in?

RD: It's really about Arnel, about him believing in himself. And surrounding himself with friends who never stop believing in him. I mean, the unsung hero here is his friend who posted his clips on YouTube, who had the strongest feeling that someone was going to hear him and say, "Come on board." And it happened.

CP: So don't stop believing that you might win the lottery and sing in an arena band?

RD: Don't stop believing that your dreams will come true. His dreams came true. You may pooh-pooh and say that his own voice is not being heard. But seriously, he was poor. He was on the street. And to get this. . . Did his dreams come true? Absolutely.

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