Everything I know about ALS I learned from the 2001 TV Movie Jenifer. I know there is ongoing research into the benefits of stem cell therapies. I know it is nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease, because it is the disease that felled the baseball superstar. And I know that this neurodegenerative disease is a killer. It killed Jenifer Estess when she was just forty years old. Jason Becker was nineteen when he received his death sentence – his prognosis was 3-5 years. It was 1989 and he had just been gifted the coveted position of lead guitarist in David Lee Roth’s band. He had already achieved acclaim in the industry through his work with his band Cacophony and his remarkable talent was flinging open doors that would lead him straight to the rock and roll hall of fame.
Jason determined to achieve his rock star dream regardless but over the course of recording the band’s first album his symptoms accelerated. What began as an ache in his leg became a devastating loss of power that spread to his hands and snatched their dexterity until he could no longer hold a guitar at all. In a handful of years, the boy who could out-Clapton Eric Clapton became the young man who was living out the fantasy of every kid with a Gibson. In a handful more, the rocker who was the envy of guitarists the world over lost his mobility, his speaking voice and the promise of any future at all.
The opening acts of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet reprise his stratospheric rise and fall through family movies and on-camera interviews. The title is a clue to the dark humour he and his family employ and is also the name of the fundraising tour his friends in rock stage for him at the conclusion of the film. The narrative is peppered with interviews from a number of the guitar greats he met on his path to the top. Most poignant of these is the testimony of Megadeth’s Marty Freidman – a rock contemporary of Jason’s who had alternately admired and envied his friend’s skills as they ascended towards stardom together. Friedman’s emotional reaction to the divergence of their paths is very moving. He continues to be awed that Jason holds no bitterness towards him.
The success of Jesse Vile’s film lies in the exceptional access he was granted. The family embraced the opportunity to tell their tale to camera and there is a level of intimacy in these exchanges which make Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet into something far deeper than a standard rockumentary. The use of family pictures and home movies lend the film a dreamlike quality at times as we are able to look back alongside them. The sucker-punch impact of ALS is addressed and discussed openly but there is no stirring soundtrack to milk viewer’s tears, only stoicism, wit and laughter. And though Jason cannot speak, you can discern his larger-than-life presence with absolute clarity. It is there in the stories his brother tells, in the way his father teases and his mother and ex girlfriend sustain him and in the way their love endures. This is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary man with an extraordinary talent and an extraordinary family. It is a love story.
To this day Jason continues to write music. With the benefit of modern technology and a variation of the Vocal Eyes system he and his father created to act in place of his voice – when his ability to communicate was thought lost – Jason breaks the complex compositions he carries in his head into single notes. The two painstakingly drop these notes piece by piece onto a screen until a tune unfurls before them. Without deference to his limitations, Becker remains a perfectionist, abandoning hours of meticulous notations the second he is dissatisfied by the sound. His level of musical mastery is rare and the working relationship between father and son rarer still. Their screen time together, and their sparring-partner banter, offer some of the most touching and funny moments at the heart of this gem of a film.
There are flaws. The talking heads are impressive but David lee Roth is conspicuous by his absence. I understand that there were constraints of money and time but his contribution would have been a fascinating one. I would also have liked to see more discussion of Jason’s spiritual life. It is alluded to with footage of a visit to someone who appears to be a healer or ‘divine mother’ but never explored further. I was curious too about the part ex-fiancée Serrana Pilar plays in his daily life – she devotes herself to his nutritional and personal care but is never properly interviewed. Perhaps she chose not to be too closely involved with the project but to meet her so fleetingly was a little frustrating.
These quibbles aside, Jesse Vile’s debut feature is an impressive piece of filmmaking. Yet the fact remains that this is a film about a paralysed, vegan, guitar virtuoso who lives with his parents and loves Family Guy. How rock and roll can it possibly be?
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet opens in the UK on Friday 16th November
It will be available on DVD from 3rd December 2012