When Arnel Pineda showed up at the American Embassy in the Philippines in 2007, he told an immigration officer he was traveling to the United States for an audition with the rock band Journey.
The officer didn’t believe him. Suspicious of such an unusual reason for travel and shocked by Pineda’s brazenness, he asked the middle-aged frontman to sing. Pineda broke into “Wheel in the Sky,” Journey’s 1978 hit that resurfaced during season two of “The Sopranos.” (“Don’t Stop Believin" would serve as the coda for the show’s finale, one of the most divisive episodes in television history).
After listening to the Manila native, the officer was so stunned he wrote an email describing Pineda’s performance dubbed: The Funniest Immigration Story Ever. It went viral in the Filipino and Filipino American community, landing in the inbox of documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz, a Filipino transplant residing in Baltimore.
“I called up my manager in Los Angeles and said, ‘Hey Peter, someone should be making this,’” Diaz recalls.
In the middle of editing another film, it didn’t occur to her she should make it, but that’s precisely what her manager thought should happen.
If only making a movie was ever that easy. Journey wasn’t ready for cameras.
“Peter gets back to me and says, ‘Maybe next year,’ and I say, ‘Next year they won’t have a film,’” Diaz said.
Journey, which then consisted of Neal Schon (right, with Arnel Pineda), Ross Valory, Jonathan Cain and Deen Castronovo, was not yet secure enough with its new lead singer to open themselves up to a filmmaker.
So Diaz improvised, offering to shoot one day of footage, cut a brief clip and show it to the band.
Diaz needed convincing as well, unsure what made this particular story distinctive enough to warrant a feature-length movie.
“It could have been a short,” she said, thinking back on her initial reservations.
But meeting Pineda assured her.
“Arnel’s very articulate about his inner life, open and accessible. It’s such an obvious story in this day of YouTube and American Idol, and seemed like a really unique story. But it was made even more obvious because of Arnel.”
Though a YouTube video earned Pineda his audition for Journey, he had every reason to avoid cameras.
The death of his mother robbed him of a traditional adolescence, as he dropped out of school at 13 and moved out of his home to reduce the financial burden on his family. A couple of years passed in which Pineda depended on odd jobs for money and had no permanent residence, sleeping in public or at friends’ homes.
At 15, he became the lead singer of a group called Ijos and formed a few bands throughout the late 1980s and early '90s.
Pineda suffered another setback – the end of a romantic relationship. He almost lost his voice thanks to stress and abuse of various substances.
None of this cowed him.
“People need to know what I’ve gone through,” Pineda told TheWrap. “It’s human nature. We’re all curious and really need to know the truth. If you don’t, you won’t buy it or feel the give and take.”
“It’s so surreal that a guy like me from the Philippines who was just a cover singer … it’s too much to take,” he added. “It’s a miracle, a divine intervention.”
The filmmakers could have used a little celestial magic during the shoot, filming without any major financier at a time when credit was hard to come by.
Though Diaz (left) convinced the band she should make the movie, she didn’t go on their tour with them at first because she had no money.
She then met with fellow Baltimore resident Capella Fahoome Brogden about producing it.
As the two stood in a Starbucks parking lot, Brogden convinced her they should just begin and figure out the money later. This was 2008, the year of the great recession.
“I was trying to charge my credit card faster than they could cut lines of credit,” Brogden told TheWrap.
As a result, there was a stop-and-start production. They’d travel in a car trailing the band’s tour bus, staying in the cheap hotel next door until they ran out of money.
Then they would do some commercial work to pay the bills, and while on tour, Brogden served as both producer and production assistant, washing clothes while watching footage.
“Being on tour, you don’t know what day it is, what city you’re in,” she said. “The fact that these performers do this 10 times, working harder looking good, sounding good, it was…”
By the time the movie premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, it had the imprimatur of Oprah and was ready to find a distributor. Along came Cinedigm, which bought the movie over the summer and released it this weekend.
But Pineda still can't watch it.
"When I watched it at Tribeca, my eyes were half closed," Pineda said. "I was always just too terrified. The reason I sat through it is I hope people will look beyond my face. I would like it to be out there and seen by millions of kids so they know that if they never stop believing in themselves they will be somebody someday."