LOS ANGELES—Racist vitriol, women flinging their underwear at Arnel Pineda, private massage moments, his emotional homecoming show with Journey in Manila and more—Ramona Diaz saw and heard it all as she filmed the band on and off for three years for her documentary, “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.”
Set to open in the United States Friday (March 8) “Don’t Stop…” is, owing to Ramona’s unobtrusive way with the camera and her calm, gently persuasive manner, an engrossing peek at Arnel and his Cinderella-like assimilation into the popular pop-rock band as its lead vocalist. The award-winning filmmaker takes us to the back stages of arenas, inside the band’s tour bus, hotel rooms and homes as Journey, especially Arnel, expresses private feelings.
The central focus is obviously Arnel and, thankfully, he is just as interesting offstage. He is candid and articulate in his own homespun way, charismatic and not coy in front of the cameras. Arnel recalls his first tryout with the band in the States, when he told Journey guitarist Neal Schon, “Can I just go home?” He vividly describes the moment as seemingly happening in slow motion, like in a movie.
The singer admits having had his share of bad affairs, alcohol and drugs. In contrast, Ramona has an interesting footage of Arnel away from the arena stage. He’s cooking a dish in the kitchen of his spanking new home in the Philippines, looking at peace and content.
There’s an amusing segment where Arnel visits his old grade school. The lady principal hasn’t heard of him or Journey. He simply smiles through this as he poses with her for snapshots.
Ramona filmed Arnel in his old neighborhood. In the docu, he recalls when the family sold most of their furniture to pay for his mother’s hospital expenses (they were thrown out of an apartment when they couldn’t pay the rent).
Arnel’s brothers relate how he gave them the P50 he earned each night from a singing gig, so they could buy food. Arnel recounts feeling very nervous right before and during the opening number in his first-ever concert with Journey. That was in a stadium in Chile, packed with 18,000 people. In his first minutes onstage, all he could think of was, “Oh my God, I’m dead!”
We see in the film the band’s exhilaration when the cheering crowd embraced the new vocalist. But for this columnist, nothing could be more moving than the footage of Arnel’s homecoming show with Journey in Manila. He waves a Philippine flag handed to him by a spectator as he sang.
The film, distributed by Cinedigm/Docurama Films, begins its regular United States theatrical engagement in 13 cities—New York (Quad in Manhattan, Center Sunnyside in Queens, Cobble Hill in Brooklyn), Los Angeles (Laemmle in N. Hollywood, AMC Orange 20 in Orange County), San Diego, Honolulu, DC, Richmond, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe. On March 15, “Don’t Stop…” opens in San Francisco (Kabuki), Columbus, Ohio and Guam.
We hear there are negotiations for a theatrical release in Manila in mid-April.
Excerpts of our e-mail interview with Ramona:
How long were you on the road with the band?
We were on the road on and off with the band for the Revelation Tour in 2008. We followed Arnel to Manila right after the tour. We returned when the band performed in Manila in 2009. We continued filming throughout that year, visiting the guys in their homes, then again in 2010 as they returned to the studio to record their second album with Arnel on lead vocals.
The film’s success hinged on how open and accessible the band was to you and your crew. What were your thoughts on this before you started filming the band?
I wouldn’t have pursued this had we not been granted full access [which in itself] was a process. When they first agreed to the project, I wasn’t sure they knew we would be sticking around for a long time. Up to that point, they were used to the big networks coming in for a day or two… and then leaving. It was a steep learning curve for all. We had to learn the norms and protocols of a big tour; to wear black all the time; and to not schedule interviews until after 1 p.m.
Access to Arnel was key, of course. In 2008, his first year with the band, he traveled without an entourage. He was alone in his dressing room for the most part. We became sort of his entourage, his sounding board. The fact that he and I could lapse into Filipino helped a lot; it was our go-to space. It would have been different had we filmed the next year; by then he was traveling with his family and he had his own roadie (Ulysses “Yul” Session, who appears at the end of the film). The dynamic would have been completely different.
Aside from Arnel’s genuine talent, what do you think made the band keep him?
The entire package—his epic voice, his charisma on stage, work ethic, and the fact that he brought a whole new life to the band when they badly needed it.
As a Fil-Am, and not as a filmmaker, how did you feel seeing Arnel win the band’s approval and subsequently, the hearts of thousands of Journey fans?
It was, in a word, heartwarming. I couldn’t avoid feeling proud. Every time Arnel stepped on stage and the first notes of “Separate Ways” wafted through the stadium and the roar of the fans reached backstage, I got goose bumps. There were thousands on any given night throughout that summer. It was overwhelming.
On the other hand, did you witness any racist reaction toward Arnel?
Most definitely. The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. The Internet gave Arnel his chance to be the lead vocalist of one of the most beloved bands in rock ’n roll through YouTube. But the Internet was also the conduit for the vitriol. Arnel had a great attitude toward it—he turned it off because if he let it get to him, it would affect his performance, and that would have added fuel to the fire. You can’t do anything with racism except to shine a light on it, and he did that by bringing his A game each night.
What were some of the most unusual fan reaction that you saw?
I’m not sure it was unusual, but it certainly seemed very retro. Women still threw their underwear at Arnel. Or inebriated audience members stormed the stage to get to Arnel. Rock ’n roll, right?
What was it like then, to witness Arnel perform before fellow Filipinos, in his own country and yours?
That was off the hook! That meant more to Arnel than any other performance. So when he started waving that flag, it was truly magical.
You filmed some really private moments like when Arnel was being massaged. Did he impose any restrictions?
None at all. Arnel is very open; it was funny because the masseuse was the one who asked us to turn off the camera! Arnel was like, “No, it’s okay.”
Any surreal or standout moments?
Being on the tour itself—working all day, driving all night to the next city, sleeping for a few hours, then doing it all again. I’m not complaining; that was a privilege. I can tick it off my bucket list now (joke).
We laughed some, but I don’t remember about—maybe it was just out of fatigue or because of limited resources.
This was an independently produced film so financing it was always a problem. My producer, Capella Fahoome Brogden, stepped up to the plate and practically mortgaged her home to do it. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not too far from the truth. We collected small investments from family members and associates, but that didn’t cover a fourth of it. Coping with a well-oiled big act on limited funds held many, many challenges.
Imagine me, Capella and our small crew of three, sometimes four, in a minivan with equipment and luggage, driving all night, singing Journey songs to keep awake—and that’s just for starters.
Since you’ve been on the road with a famous band—is it humanly possible to not give in to temptations on the road?
I think it depends at what stage you’re at. Success usually comes very early for rock stars—in their 20s, some in their late teens. I can imagine going crazy at that age, like a kid in a candy store. But when success comes later in life, as it did for Arnel, I think the temptations are tempered by wisdom.
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)
‘Access to Arnel was key. It helped that he and I could lapse into Filipino; it was our go-to space.’