Some bands are born of passion and deep camaraderie, a collective desire to rebel against authority — or at least to look cool. Others are born because a major label threatens to drop them if they don't find a lead vocalist.
It's possible that Journey started as the former before morphing into the latter. Most people know the band as the hit-making arena rockers responsible for "Don't Stop Believin'," "Open Arms," "Faithfully" and other songs you danced to at your cousin's wedding. But before Steve Perry's soaring voice and lustrous hair launched them into the '80s stratosphere, Journey was a Bay Area jam band, turning out technically proficient prog rock with a jazz-fusion bent. When CBS Records demanded they change course after their first two albums flopped, they reinvented themselves as a pop act with Perry at the center.
The chart-topping Journey of the early '80s — Perry, guitarist Neal Schon, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith — was only good for a few years, plus a reunion or two, but the nostalgia tours haven't stopped in the three decades since. Journey minus Steve Perry may sound unthinkable to some, but the core group of Schon, Cain and Valory has forged on with a succession of new lead singers and session players and a few modest-selling albums to tour behind. The question of artistic legitimacy post-Perry doesn't matter: Journey is a cash register that never stops ringing.
The thin documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey tells the remarkable rags-to-riches story of the band's latest vocalist, Arnel Pineda, a Filipino singer whose uncanny cover of "Faithfully," posted on YouTube, caught Schon's attention one night. After eight years with Steve Augeri as frontman — a period that ended with a throat infection and accusations that the band was piping in pre-recorded vocals — and an aborted attempt to recruit Jeremey Hunsicker, the lead singer of a Journey cover band, Schon and company were desperate for a viable frontman. In the wake of The Sopranos' series finale, which famously (and notoriously) ended with "Don't Stop Believin' " pumping through a diner jukebox, the time was ripe for a world tour. And with Pineda, they wound up hitting the jackpot.
The disparity between Journey's mercenary nature and Pineda's inspiring triumph over adversity comes through starkly in Everyman's Journey, but director Ramona S. Diaz doesn't seem conscious of it. She gets terrific footage of Pineda's rough initial studio sessions with the band, when he struggled to harness his voice, and of his first night on tour in Chile, where the adrenaline rush of performing before thousands of screaming fans had him zipping wildly around the stage. But in both cases, Journey members and management take a coolly analytical view of Pineda's flaws: His excitement is getting in the way of the pristine vocals the band (and its fans, presumably) has come to expect.
Sticking close to Pineda, Diaz hears heartbreaking stories of his broken family and deep poverty, including a period where he slept in a public park and literally sang for his supper. Had a fan not spent hours in an Internet cafe uploading grainy videos to YouTube, Pineda might still be belting out covers in the lounges of Manila, so he's understandably thunderstruck by the opportunity when Schon contacts him from out of the blue.
It's a dream come true — but it comes with a set of anxieties, too: Perry's shoes wouldn't be easy for any singer to fill, but for a poor young man from an underdeveloped country, the expectations of the band — and those of thousands of skeptical fans — are difficult to bear. Everyman's Journey glances at some of Pineda's problems on the tour, from a pesky cold to bouts of homesickness to the ugly specter of racist Journey fans, but it papers over them too quickly. Diaz insists on selling Pineda's promo-friendly myth at the expense of the richer, more complicated story of a dreamer who learns to become the durable professional his bandmates expect.
It's a cold-blooded business — and all sentiment aside, it's clear that Pineda is as replaceable as anyone.