Monday, May 14, 2012

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, is a terminal disease with no known cure. Most people afflicted with it only live 3-5 years after symptoms are first detected, with only 5% of ALS patients surviving for 20 years after being diagnosed - Jason Becker is among that 5%. 22 years after the guitar prodigy's seemingly charmed life imploded with his diagnosis, Becker continues to not just survive and defy the odds, but have an amazingly upbeat attitude towards life. His extraordinary story provides the subject for Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, the first feature-length documentary from director Jesse Vile, who raised funds for the film from online donations.
Becker and his story is probably unknown to most. I was familiar with him through my regular readership of guitar magazines in the 80s, which frequently featured stories on the teenage guitarist and his virtuoso skills. His neo-classical "shred" guitar style wasn't really my thing, but you couldn't help but be in awe of the young man's talent. Becker released a couple of albums as part of Cacophony (a duo with future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman), along with a solo album before getting his biggest break in 1990 at the age of 20 as the lead guitarist in David Lee Roth's band. At the time, that was the most coveted rock guitar gig, considering that it meant following in the footsteps of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, Roth's previous guitarists and two of the most skilled and respected guitar players on the planet. Just a week after landing the job in Roth's band, Becker began to notice muscular pain in his legs, which doctors soon told him was ALS. Undeterred and battling against the physical difficulties presented by the rapid onset of the disease, he continued to work, laying down tracks on Roth's A Little Ain't Enough album. As his condition worsened, Becker and Roth mutually agreed that he wouldn't be able to participate in the album's supporting tour. By a few years later, Becker was on a life support system and aside from being able to move his eyes, completely paralyzed.
Vile, a guitar player himself and a fan of Cacophony, first contacted Becker about making a documentary over a decade ago while he was still in film school, but the film never happened due to his inexperience. A couple of years ago, he approached Becker and his family again and they signed on, albeit warily (other filmmakers had started docs on the musician in the past decade that were never fully seen through). Vile makes liberal use of the Becker family's ample supply of home video footage of the musician, displaying moments from his childhood, during his mid-teen "cusp of stardom" phase, after his diagnosis (footage from that period is understandably limited), and the years following as Becker comes to cope with the challenges of living with ALS. One of the most heartbreaking clips shows Jason as a young boy being pushed in a wheelbarrow by his father, an eerie foreshadowing of the caregiver/patient dynamic their relationship would take on. Vile conducts interviews with Becker's guitarist peers, including Friedman, Vai, Richie Kotzen, and Joe Satriani; unfortunately, Roth, the one musical voice that most would want to hear from, is absent. After the screening, Vile said that he'd only gotten as far as contacting Roth's manager and he didn't know if the interview request had even gotten to the singer. Vile's discussions with Becker's family and friends reveal a remarkable support base, especially his father, who designed a system that allows his son to communicate via eye movement that picks out letters on a board. His dad also aids Becker in the creation of music by using a computer setup that allows the musician to place notes on a screen, again directed through eye movement. That Becker still has the determination to compose new music (and still at the same prolific level as when he was able-bodied) seems fairly amazing, although perhaps not altogether surprising when you consider that this is someone who loved the guitar so much he'd bring one to the dinner table with him, and even bought a mini guitar so he could take it in the car and get a few seconds of playing time in at red lights. Interestingly, Becker's disease also hasn't held him back from having relationships with some attractive ladies, as interviews with a couple of his former partners and his current girlfriend demonstrate.
The documentary's only misstep is a very confusing scene at the end that shows Becker and some family members attending an Indian religious ceremony, without providing any context or much of an explanation about it. While doing some research for this review, I learned about Becker's embracement of Eastern religions, which he explains in-depth here on his website. Considering that his deep religious beliefs must have played a key role in strengthening his resilience and throughout his arduous journey, I think the topic deserved more than the mere gloss over treatment it receives. Despite that momentary wobble, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet packs an emotional wallop and serves as an uplifting testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Rating: A

3 comments:

  1. My God, what a sad story. I hope I can find this on TV sometime.

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  2. I'm really looking forward to seeing this, Drew. Its unfortunate that Roth doesn't partake, as this would have really widened the 'marketing scope' of the film.

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  3. It would have helped, definitely.

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