By PETERSON GONZAGA and CHRIS TRONDSEN
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In 2007, veteran musician Arnel Pineda was on the brink of giving up on his dream of becoming a worldwide success. At 40, the Philippines native had enjoyed some modest success at home and in Hong Kong, but after years of performing with a number of bands, he was nowhere near his goal of achieving the kind of fame and fortune he had imagined for himself as a youngster.
At 15, Pineda landed his first gig as the lead singer of a band called Ijos. Years later, Pineda’s group, Amo, was the first runner up in a band competition. He then joined another band called New Age, which took him from the Philippines to Hong Kong.
After playing and touring around Hong Kong for a few years, Pineda moved back to the Philippines in 2006 and began fronting for a band called The Zoo. The band became known for its cover songs of Journey, Survivor, and other popular rock acts of ’70’s, ’80’s and ’90’s. By chance, Pineda’s friend, Noel Gomez, began posting the band’s performances on YouTube. On June 28, 2007, Neal Schon, the guitarist for Journey, reached out to Gomez, and said he wanted to invite Pineda to audition for the band… as its new front man. Pineda’s audition was, to put it simply, an overwhelming success and the long struggling musician was invited to become the lead singer of Journey, making his dream an unbelievable reality.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, who was born in the Philippines, was so entranced by the fact that Pineda was found on YouTube, she decided to spotlight his first year and his first tour with Journey in a film.
Diaz and her producers reached out to the band, asking permission to film Pineda’s new life in what became the documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.” Her team wanted to show the trials and tribulations of Schon and his band mates as they replaced their former front man, Steve Perry, who had left the band to concentrate on his solo career. Would this talented singer from the Philippines understand the scope of being the front man for an iconic band and have what it takes to stay on top?
Journey’s band members originally thought it was just going to be one day of taping, but agreed to allow Diaz and her crew to follow them throughout the 2008 tour with Pineda singing lead vocals. The documentary became an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the road Journey took with its new lead singer as they reassured longtime fans, who were reluctant to accept the newcomer and added new fans from a whole other generation.
Sitting comfortably on a studio couch of NGTV in Beverly Hills, Diaz spoke with Pacific Rim Video/Front Row Features correspondent Chris Trondsen about the experience of following Pineda and the iconic band on their 2008 tour.
Q: Were you a fan of Journey before this film or was it that a Filipino became the front man of this group? What was the thing that interested you in creating this project?
Diaz: I knew about Journey. I wasn’t a big fan, but I knew their songs and I grew up with them so they were very familiar and iconic in my memory. The fact that it was a Filipino getting this gig is so unlikely. That was really the impetus for the film and my wanting to do it and of course when I finally met Arnel and realized that he is so charismatic and golden in front of the camera. I mean the camera loves certain people and the camera loves Arnel. The combination of that and Journey. You can’t miss. You’ve got to do it. I think I would of regretted it if it passed me by.
Q: Today’s celebrities are more used to having cameras follow them for reality shows. For iconic bands, not much. What was the process of approaching Journey to do this documentary and for you to film this project?
Diaz: When I told my manager there’s this story (about Arnel). He said that I had to do it. The thought of following a band in my head was like what a mountain to climb. I didn’t want to do it. But then I said to myself that this is a story that is just too good to pass up. The access— I was under the belief that because they are veterans, they’d be used to cameras. But it’s the opposite because they were in the age right when MTV was coming, the cusp of that. It’s really post MTV that the artists are used to having cameras in their dressing rooms and backstage. But before that and the days of Queen and Journey, they’re not. That surprised me. The process of even of saying sure, come on board. I don’t think the completely understood what that meant. So it was a process. They’d say, “‘You filmed this before. Why do you want to film it again?'” I was like, “Maybe this is the take that will make into the film.'” Really that’s what documentary filming is all about. We don’t shout “Action.” We take it over and over again to get that right feeling, right take and the right angle and basically the take the ends up in the film. It was a learning curve for them and a learning curve for me because I’ve never been on a tour before. But they got it. They were mostly used to big networks coming in for a couple of days doing a feature and leave. They realized we were going to be with them for the entire summer during the tour.
Q: We see the interesting back story of Arnel being homeless for a while. When did you discover this interesting back story of Arnel and the struggles he had in life? Did you know all that before jumping onboard this project?
Diaz: I didn’t know it until I first met Arnel. I met Arnel in Northern California when they were rehearsing right before they embarked on the 2008 Revelation Tour and the reason whey we were there filming them was because the band said, “Okay.” They weren’t convinced that they had a story. They said, “Why don’t you just do it next year?” Next year there’s no story. It has to be the first year with the band. They said, “Why don’t you come out and film the band for a day, cut something and show us the story you’re going to make.” That’s what I did and that’s the first time I met Arnel. That first time, he told me his story. I was like, “Oh my gosh! On top of that, you have this amazing personal history and of course then he told me more and more as I spent time with him on the road.
Q: In this day and age, social media and YouTube are important. Why do you think it was so important for the discovery of Arnel and how all that has changed making it possible for Arnel’s discovery?
Diaz: This story would not have been possible ten to fifteen years ago. It’s a Cinderella story with a very modern day twist. Without YouTube, it couldn’t have happened. The fact that it happened because of YouTube and he was able to stay and be successful because he has talent so of course you need social media and talent. However, cream still rises to the top because without talent even if you’re discovered, if you can’t make it then you can’t. Charisma, you can never teach charisma. You can never teach that performance on stage. No one ever taught Arnel that. He has it in spades. YouTube is just the beginning. To keep the gig and to be successful, it’s all on you man. No social media will ever help you do that.
Q: While filming the documentary, did you see Arnel grow from being a singer discovered on YouTube to growing and jumping into this boot camp of becoming the front man for an iconic band?
Diaz: Yeah. You know I think he had no idea what he was getting into. Who would ever turn down that gig? Never, right? It was a leap of faith for him. He had to stay healthy. He had to eat right. He had to sleep a certain amount of hours. You can’t do that gig without being healthy and he found that out on the road to the point where they started calling him The Monk, because he would lead a healthy life. It’s really him and Dean Castronovo, the drummer, who have to be perfectly fit because they have to exert 100 percent physically every night. He learned it on the road. It’s pretty amazing the process of his learning because it wasn’t only him, it was the rest of the band. I think it was a leap of faith for them because they were happy they found this guy and realize they have to integrate him into this craziness. It was all a learning experience and language. Arnel has said that if it has happened to him earlier, like in his twenties or mid-twenties, he would’ve gone crazy. Because it happened to him when he was 40, he was wiser so he stayed humble and kept his feet firmly on the ground. He just understood had to give it his all. Things will end. Things always end. So for now and here, he’s going to be present and give everything he has.