Getty Images/Jason Merritt
Arnel Pineda, Journey lead singer and star of a documentary premiering in SF this week.
Don’t Stop Believein’: Everyman’s Journey tells the incredible story of how an unknown Filipino singer named Arnel Pineda was discovered on YouTube and landed his dream gig fronting the all-American band Journey (see previous story). The rockumentary opens in the band’s home town of San Francisco on March 15 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
We caught up with director and documentarian Ramona S. Diaz, who captured Arnel’s journey and the band’s resulting regeneration on film.
Nicole Powers: What’s your background?
Ramona S. Diaz: I was born and raised in the Philippines. I came to the U.S. to study when I was 16 or 17 years old. I went to Emerson College in Boston, and ever since then I’ve been going back and forth.
How did you come across the Journey story?
I’m plugged into the Filipino-American community, and there are emails that circulate in this community. One of the emails was actually from the immigration officer at the American Embassy in the Philippines who gave Arnel his visa to audition for the band. It was just such a funny email because he actually asked Arnel to sing for his visa.
He was at the American Embassy and this guy comes up to his window and says, “I need a visa to audition for the band Journey.” The immigration officer was a Journey fan, so he said, “Do you mean that American band Journey?” He couldn’t believe it. He said, “I’ve heard so many reasons why people want visas, but this tops it. Why don’t you sing a song and I’m going to let everyone here listen to you. I want everyone here to hear you sing just in case anything happens like you don’t come back. At least they can vouch for me, vouch that you have a good voice.”
So basically that’s what happened, and it was written in this email. It was really funny and I thought, someone should be making this story. . . At the bottom of the email was the same YouTube link that [Journey guitarist] Neal Schon clicked on. I clicked on the link and it’s Arnel singing “Faithfully” and I got goosebumps. I was like, I hope this guy got the gig. I Googled and then found out he did. One thing led to another…I thought someone should be making this film, and it ended up to be me.
Were you a fan of Journey before coming across the email and Arnel’s story?
I was very familiar with their music but I can’t say I was a big fan. But after making this film, I have such respect for what they’ve done… for their music and that they’re a hard-working band. They’re still out there, they love to tour, they love to perform. I really respect that, so I have become a fan during the process of making this film.
It’s hard not to become a fan during the process of watching this film either; Arnel has such a humble and winning personality, which really shines through.
He’s really like that. He’s like that to this day. He’s still with the band, he’s still touring. It’s been 4 or 5 years, and he’s still the same way. He once told me if it had happened to him when he was in his twenties he said he would have gone crazy. But because it happened to him in his forties — I think he was turning 40 the year we filmed him — he was wiser. He knows it’s a gig. He knows it’s going to end. Nothing lasts forever. So he’s smart, his feet are really firmly planted on the ground.
Coming from the Philippines yourself, you must have a sense of how Journey didn’t just gain a singer, but a nation, too.
Yes. That surprised me actually. Because we followed him in the summer of ’08, his first tour with the band. No one expected that as the summer progressed that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans would make up a large percentage of the audience. No one could have guessed that. I couldn’t have imagined that that would have happened. As we filmed and as we followed them, as the summer progressed, I’d see more and more Filipinos. I thought, what is happening? This is really interesting.
Then I realized in this day of social media where every performance could be on YouTube the next day, it spread like wildfire. You see him on YouTube, you look up where he’s playing next, and if it’s a stadium close to where you live you go if you’re Filipino. I understand that, I understand the impulse. It was certainly so heartwarming for me to see all these faces as we started filming, because it certainly wasn’t the case in the first two shows, and then it was progressively more and more Filipino faces. It was just really incredible and fantastic.
You started filming on the very first tour Arnel was on, and when you started, you didn’t know this film was going to have a happy ending. That tour could have been a disaster, right?
Absolutely. But that’s documentary filmmaking. You never know what’s going to happen because you’re filming life as it unfolds. It would still have been a film — a very different film — but yes, I didn’t know he was going to succeed. He didn’t know whether he was going to succeed. I think he felt like he was auditioning all summer, he didn’t know he had already passed it. I think that’s why I like making documentary films because you don’t know how it’s all going to unfold. You have no idea what the end will be.
Post documentary, do you have a sense of what Arnel’s life is like? Does he live in America or the Philippines? He must be caught between two worlds to some degree.
He still lives in Manila. He doesn’t want to live here. He finds it cold. The weather doesn’t really suit him even in the height of summer, compared to the tropics, it’s a little chilly. Basically he flies out every time they tour, but he’s based still in Manila. I think he’s also settled. He’s really grown into his role. But, at the core of it, you can still see that he’s very wide-eyed. He still always says, I know it’s a dream that’s going to end. And he has to think of the next chapter, whatever that chapter is.