The curious journey of Arnel Pineda

By Cristina DC Pastor

Spoiler alert. I’m not a fan of Arnel Pineda or any copycat who sings through the art of imitation.

Arnel is just like this friend of mine who could sound like any American singer you wanted to hear. Say Frank Sinatra and my friend Cesar will promptly belt “My Way” on his guitar, Paul McCartney and “Yesterday” will come out of his pipes. Why, he can even sound like Whitney Houston complete with the vibration, the accent and the womanly five-octave vocal range. That’s how good he was. As a matter of fact, that’s how good we Filipinos are at imitating foreign singers. For those who still remember, there was a Filipino band in the ‘80s that sounded so much like the Beatles and the BeeGees and passed themselves off those pop groups, until they were unmasked as bogus.

My friend did not have a YouTube video when long-time Journey guitarist Neal Schon was scouring the Internet looking for a replacement for Steve Perry. Arnel Pineda did. The rest, as the film “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” by Ramona Diaz shows, is history. The well-made documentary dramatizes Arnel’s rise as a major cross-over star in U.S. pop music culture and brings us a sweeping history of the pop-rock band Journey.

While I may not be a believer in Arnel’s pop music direction, I submit he has an organic talent, a voice all his own. Given the kind of expensive care he put into it since he joined Journey – voice coach, antibiotics, medication and other thinners — that voice was enhanced and sounded better. And with his high-flying energy as a performer, Arnel became the perfect singer for the band.

I attended the preview of Diaz’ movie, and was so riveted by its treatment of Arnel as some kind of a Cinderella Man. Arnel grew up poor in the Sampaloc district of Manila. He and his two brothers were given to relatives to be raised after their mother died. Arnel chose to be on his own and sang with a hardscrabble group wherever they could find a gathering where there was food. He moved from band to band and gig to gig, and even performed contractually in Hong Kong. A devoted fan would post performances on YouTube of Arnel’s group, Zoo, which did incredible sound-alikes of Air Supply, Aerosmith, Journey, among other American bands. In 2007, Schon stumbled upon this video and was so taken by the quality of Arnel’s voice, especially when he sang Steve Perry’s hits. By December 2007, Arnel had signed up with Journey.

At Journey, he was initially uncertain about how the audience would receive him, but the group got off to a great start with their first concert in Chile. With its new front man, Journey was an astounding success before an audience of almost 20,000. Arnel was spectacular as he combined his vocal quality and boundless energy and grooved as Journey found its resurrection among old disciples and new followers. The infusion of new blood, unstoppable energy and exotic appeal was evident in succeeding concerts in the U.S., in Europe and Asia, especially the Philippines. Wherever Journey toured, there would always be a Filipino contingent following the group around.

Arnel came at a time when Journey was struggling to revive its luster. In its heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it hit about 10 platinum albums and two golds.

“It’s been a compromise,” Arnel would say wistfully toward the end of the film, reflecting perhaps how his success has been one where he needed to bend a little bit and be someone who is not the essence of what he truly wanted to be, although grateful to be a commercial success and of help to impoverished Filipinos through his foundation. Arnel has developed an album of his own compositions in his own voice.

For a glimpse into Arnel’s humility, perseverance and self-deprecating humor, the film should be seen by everyone. There are life lessons here on seeking fame. He spoke about the “temptations” from drugs, alcohol and women and his near-fatalistic belief that unless one is grounded, fame may be fleeting.

“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” opens March 8 at the following theatres in New York City: Quad Cinema in Manhattan, Williamsburg Cinemas in Brooklyn, and Center Cinema 5 in Sunnyside, Queens.

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