Ramona Diaz's Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey is possibly everything you're afraid it's going to be: an unabashed promotional documentary about the American arena-rock band Journey; a wall-to-wall concert of '80s pop-rock ballads; a retelling of the rags-to-riches story of Arnel Pineda, arguably the most popular of recent Filipino vocalists working in America.
Mind you, Diaz doesn't hide the fact that Arnel is actually the second replacement of the band's most famous vocalist, Steve Perry; nor does she hide the fact that many of the most popular songs Arnel sings were written and composed over twenty years ago. To his credit, Arnel doesn't gloss over this either; when during an autograph session he's asked point-blank about Steve Perry, he says "Without him I wouldn't be here."
That awareness saves the film from falling into a vat of its own cheesiness. Arnel knows he's not doing entirely original music; he talks about it at length at one point. But he's not bitter--he is and always will be grateful for being chosen to be the band's vocalist, and he sings the songs in Perry's voice and style without a trace of irony, or self-parody. If anything, that's the film's single most unsettling image: Perry's power-belting tenor pouring out of a frail little dark-skinned Asian with flowing long hair (it's like listening to the voice of Pavarotti pour out of Pocahontas).
I'd say the film wisely takes its cue from Arnel's attitude: it knows it's an instrument for the glorification of its patrons, but does its work well and refuses to act like an ingrate towards the hand that nourishes it. Along the way it manages to tell Arnel's story in some detail, from his humble beginnings as member of a fractured family eking out a living in the streets of Manila to his career as vocalist in a small-scale rock band.
Diaz doesn't gloss over and Arnel doesn't hide the fact that he used drugs, and was at one point alcoholic; unlike some reformed rockers, he doesn't wear the fact on his chest like a hair shirt--perhaps Arnel's most appealing quality is his groundedness, the way he modestly admits to his failings, and casually refers to his achievements without making too much fuss either way (it's a Filipino trait that on one hand keeps slowing down his ascent up the ladder of success, on the other keeps him balanced enough to avoid prematurely falling off that ladder).
The film of course ends with its eponymous song, and Diaz manages to play with some of the high-definition digital cameras and swooping crane equipment filmmakers enjoy using when creating documentaries of big-time rock bands (either playing with them or cutting in footage that uses them). Hard to begrudge her, though--like Arnel, she's only too aware of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with big toys; the temptation is naturally too much to resist.
Is this cause for celebration? Yes, I think so; a kind of gentle applause, that someone with talent has for once landed some kind of happy ending, that Filipinos are somehow inching forward in the vast American media landscape, conquering territory any way they can.
(The film will open on March 8 Friday in fifteen cities across the United States)