Arnel Pineda sat in the dark theater in Nashville with his hands partially covering his eyes. Occasionally, he would peek up at the screen, horror-movie style.
When the lights went up in Music City after the most important screening of “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” Pineda could scarcely believe it was all true, his tale of being plucked from obscurity in 2008 to front the classic rock band Journey. Of how he had literally gone from rags — a homeless, high school dropout in his native Philippines — to riches — touring the globe singing huge hit songs like “Faithfully,” “Open Arms,” and, of course, “Don’t Stop Believin,’ ” to full arenas. Pineda also wasn’t crazy about the way he looked. “I was covering my eyes because I look like crap in some parts because I’d had no sleep and they were asking me questions,” says the genial, soft-spoken singer, slightly sleepy on the phone from a New Zealand tour stop.
The story is true, however, and fortunately for director Ramona S. Diaz, Pineda got over it, or else she might not have had a movie. “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday.
“That was the hardest audience I ever had to screen it for,” says Diaz, who unspooled the documentary for Pineda and the rest of Journey — guitarist Neal Schon, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory, and drummer Deen Castronovo — last February. “At that point, we hadn’t signed off on music rights.” In other words, if the members of Journey didn’t like the film, which was financed by Diaz on credit cards, favors, family investments, wings and prayers, they could have shut it down by blocking her from using their music.
“Every fiber of my being was saying oh my God, we really could be royally screwed. But at the end,” says Diaz, with a still audible sigh in her voice “they came through for us.”
The film follows Pineda, who had toiled for many years in cover bands and original outfits in the Philippines and Hong Kong, from his initial audition for the band in San Francisco through the group’s first tour with the new frontman they found on YouTube.
Diaz, an Emerson grad whose previous films include “Imelda,” a 2003 documentary about former first lady Marcos of the Philippines, first caught wind of Pineda’s story by e-mail.
“I’m Filipino-American and I’m plugged into the community and whenever something big happens in the community everyone knows about it,” she says. “So there was this e-mail that was circulating that was written by the immigration officer who gave him his visa to go to the audition.”
When Pineda first told an official the reason for his visit to the United States, he saw the man chuckling in disbelief. But then he turned to another officer, and this one had actually seen Pineda’s band, Zoo, playing in local clubs and had heard him singing Journey songs. Pineda says he sang “Wheel in the Sky” on the spot and three days later he had his visa.
Disbelief was a recurring theme at the time. That Pineda had the presence of mind to film his audition with the band was a huge gift to Diaz. “He didn’t think he was going to get the gig so he wanted to record it and show people — ‘See I did audition for Journey’ — because no one believed him. And he told me that like, as a matter-of-fact, ‘Oh yeah, we filmed that.’ You filmed what? Seriously?”
From there Diaz persuaded the band to shoot a rehearsal. And then another few days. Finally she gained enough of their trust that they invited her crew on tour to document Pineda’s first year of adjusting to his new bandmates, huge venues and crowds, and dealing with the grueling tour schedule. Throughout it all, Pineda is even-keeled and philosophical. If it is possible to craft the “right” response to such an extraordinary circumstance, Pineda seems to display it: grateful, reverent, understandably overwhelmed but unfailingly fearless, even in the face of the ever unkind message board underbelly of the Internet, some of whose denizens did not take kindly to Pineda and let it be known.
“So much could’ve gone wrong,” says Diaz, looking back. “He could’ve failed; he could’ve lost his voice, or his confidence. We’d still have a film but not the same film, obviously. That’s why he was golden. Not only did he not miss a beat, but he was also very articulate about what was happening to him about his inner life, which is very rare to find that.”
Pineda shrugs off the praise of his calm. “I was just being myself because I was tired all the time. Keeping up with what Ramona was doing and then keeping up with the tour, it’s just too much information and too much responsibility to have.”
Nearly five years on, it is a responsibility that he now feels more comfortable with even though he knows some fans will never accept him. Although Journey had two other singers (Steve Augeri and Jeff Scott Soto) between their most famous frontman, Steve Perry, and Pineda, in the film the band members make clear that Pineda is their man as long as he wants to be. (Perry and the group split acrimoniously in 1998 and Perry has said that he has no interest in returning.)
“No singer in this world can ever replace what Mr. Perry has accomplished with the band,” Pineda says. “But right now the main objective is to continue sharing the message they have worked so hard for over the years. It’s no competition. Right now, I can still feel the bitterness of a lot of Perry fans out there. But they don’t really understand what’s going on. They feel threatened that Mr. Perry is being dethroned of his place in the band. Nobody’s trying to change that. I completely understand where they’re coming from, but they shouldn’t feel threatened, they should feel happy that the music is still relevant. A lot of people still come to the show to witness for themselves Journey in the 21st century.”
For her part, Diaz, not a big fan previously, came away with a new respect for Journey — specifically her favorite song, “Stone in Love” — and the rock ’n’ roll touring life in general.
“You know when rock stars are being interviewed on television and they’re saying, ‘You know, it’s not all that glamorous,’ and you’re like, oh shut up ?” she says with a laugh. “I realized it isn’t all glamorous. It’s not at all. It’s only glamorous those two hours onstage and everything is about those two hours and performing in front of 20,000 people, but it was tough because [the film crew was] still working those two hours. We did this on our own dime. People will think it’s Journey, they must have helped. But we really wanted it to be independent. I didn’t want a vanity project basically. I had final cut and that was very clear, but it wouldn’t have been clear if they had funded it.”
Which is why she was so relieved when they embraced her last year and gave her the greenlight on the music, of which the film features a great deal.
“I think people really need to see the film because, looking beyond my face, there’s a story that’s so great and so inspiring,” says Pineda, who hopes to get to work on a solo album soon. “That made me realize I don’t have to be ashamed that they’re going to see my face on the big screen and see me really awkward.”
“People ask me what I want people to take away from the film,” says Diaz. “Just that good things still happen to good people.”
Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.