The rock world is full of tales of tragedy. The ‘live fast, die hard’ mentality of the scene has littered the path of rock and roll stardom with premature deaths and troubled souls. It must be said however that many of these stories are of self-inflicted pain, by-products of personalities that can’t handle the pressure of fame and fortune. This isn’t to be scoffed at of course, but it can be difficult to feel heartbreak for someone that doesn’t know what to do with all of the attention and riches lavished upon them, which at some point they must have been seeking anyway. There are of course exceptions and it is undeniably devastating when a talented individual falls by the wayside, but then you come across a story like Jason Becker’s and it really puts things in perspective. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet tells his story.
Becker was a musical prodigy. He started playing the guitar aged 5 and by 14 he was a true virtuoso. He would take his skills to local talent competitions and blow the audience away with technique that few, if any, adult musicians could even hope to match, let alone teenagers. At 16 he sent a demo tape to Mike Varney, founder of Shrapnel Records, who was on the look-out for new guitar talent. He immediately gave Jason a recording contract. Joining up with another up-and-comer, Marty Friedman, Jason became part of ‘Cacophony’, a band which showcased the guitar playing talents of the duo. They recorded two albums together and a solo record each, becoming close friends in the process, but Marty got called up to play for Megadeth and Jason got an offer of his own so they split up. Jason’s call-up was no ordinary gig though. David Lee Roth was a front man synonymous with working with the world’s greatest guitarists after being part of the original Van Halen line-up then swapping the groundbreaking guitar work of Eddie Van Halen for the equally intricate stylings of Steve Vai when he went solo, and in 1989 Roth was looking for a new guitarist for his backing band. After hearing Jason’s talents, Roth gave him the job. This should have been his ticket to superstardom, but although they recorded one album together, on the eve of their first tour Becker discovered that he had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
ALS is an incurable and fatal neurodegenerative disease which completely paralyses sufferers after a short time and kills most after about 2-5 years. 22 years after his diagnosis, Jason is ‘not dead yet’ as the title puts it though and he continues to make music despite being completely paralysed. Of course he had to quit David Lee Roth’s band, but, determined to carry on making music – which was and still is his true passion, Jason managed to produce an album and further recordings using eye movements to point out how he wanted songs put together on a computer and communicating using an eye-gesture based letter-board which his father developed.
It’s an extraordinary story which demands to be told. Such tragedy matched with such spirit to overcome these obstacles make it an obvious candidate for a film treatment, I’m surprised no one had attempted to cover it previously. I hate to say it, but the film itself doesn’t quite do it justice in my opinion though. Director Jesse Vile gets a lot of things right; with the material it would have been easy to dwell on the fact that Jason never reached the levels of fame he looked set to reach, wringing out the tears as you watch the pitfalls he faced. Vile instead focuses on the positive aspects, refusing to overly manipulate your heartstrings. For me however, the gut impact which it should have naturally delivered wasn’t quite there.
I think there were just a one or two flaws that knocked it down a couple of notches for me. For one I don’t think we heard from Jason himself enough in the film. It is moving to hear from his family and friends that have sacrificed so much to help him, but having the man himself describe how he felt would have had so much more impact and I would have liked to have heard more about his inspirations and working process. He is given a voice later on, with his father reading out a couple of statements, but in my opinion Jason should have dominated proceedings. In the first half we hear nothing from him. I’m guessing this was an attempt to build up to the impact of his illness, as the film tells his story chronologically and Jason’s ALS doesn’t come into play until the half-way point. Most people that go to see the film know the basic story though through the film’s promotional blurb and the start of the film hints at the tragedy to come, so I’m not sure ‘hiding’ Jason from the viewers until the latter half was necessary.
The other thing that let the film down a bit was the last quarter. The first half, following Jason’s rise to the top, is very well done and interesting to watch (other than the lack of Jason’s contributions), then the discovery of his illness is of course heartbreaking. The finale however seems to stumble as Vile doesn’t quite know how to end the film. We don’t really hear why Jason hasn’t followed up his ‘Perspective’ album, we are shown clips of him visiting some kind of temple but but don’t get any context and although it sensibly climaxes with the coming together of his peers to put on a show in Jason’s honour, the film cuts short before any music is played. So by the end I kind of felt short-changed by all that preceded it.
I don’t know, I kind of feel bad criticising the film too much as the story is so strong on its own it does still work very well. Vile does a good job of getting intimate interviews and coverage from Jason’s family too, avoiding too many talking heads with celebrities that merely pay lip-service to the man. It’s just the slightly clumsy final quarter and lack of contributions from Jason himself that left me feeling slightly disappointed. Fans of music documentaries and hair-metal should definitely give it a try though.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in selected theatres now in the UK and is due a DVD release on 3rd December, released by Dogwoof.