As the rousing opening-night film at last year's Silverdocs festival, "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, part nostalgia trip, part underdog-slash-fish-out-of-water tale that can't help but leave the audience full of heart and misty of eye.
The story of Arnel Pineda, the Filipino cover-band singer who was catapulted into stardom in 2008 when he joined Journey, "Don't Stop Believin' " chronicles Pineda's first tour with the band, as Journey marked four decades together and teetered between we-used-to-be-big obscurity and genuine renewal.
The small, fawnlike Pineda was filling shoes once worn by the redoubtable Steve Perry, he of the soaring tenor that made such tunes as "Faithfully," "Lights" and "Open Arms" such enduring power ballads -- not to mention the film's iconic title track.
Filmmaker Ramona Diaz had the foresight to tag along on Pineda's first tour, after he had won over Journey's most skeptical band members (he was a discovered on YouTube by lead guitarist Neal Schon) but before he faced sold-out arenas filled with thousands of fans who only wanted to see Perry come back. "Don't Stop Believin' " aptly conveys the giddy sense of wonder as viewers observe firsthand how Pineda charms the crowds and proves his chops by hitting the high notes over and over.
As infectious as Pineda's enthusiasm is, "Don't Stop Believin' " too often relies on his inherent appeal as a film subject, rarely probing more deeply than the narrative he and his bandmates provide. Toggling between Pineda's home town of Manila, where he grew up poor and eventually homeless, and his grueling life on the road, Diaz handles Perry's departure from the band perfunctorily, never approaching him for an interview. What's more, she never gives viewers an intimate glimpse of the dynamics at play between Pineda and band members who have been together for decades.
After Pineda's first performance with Journey, in Chile, the band's manager scolds him for expending too much energy onstage, which he commands with a series of unexpected athletic jumps and runs. But Diaz leaves it at that, never giving viewers a sense of how that or any other relationship deepens or grows.
Still, the story at the core of "Don't Stop Believin' " is a fascinating one, not just about an artist swept into Cinderella-like fame and fortune, but about fandom, perseverance and the physical and mental discipline it takes to triumph. In fact, it takes a lot more than just believin' -- although there's no doubt that a bit of faith helps, too.
Two stars. Unrated. In English and Tagalog with English subtitles. Contains brief profanity. 105 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.