Jason Becker was almost certainly set for superstardom as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. From a young age he proved to be incredibly talented and, by the time he was just 20, he’d landed a dream gig replacing Steve Vai in David Lee Roth’s band. But then disaster struck.
Shortly before the tour itself, Becker was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka motor neuron disease. Given just a few years to live, he slowly lost control of his muscles – quickly and tragically losing the ability to play guitar. Yet Becker has lived into his forties – far longer than predicted by doctors – and, with help from first-time director Jesse Vile, he has a fascinating tale to tell. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet received its UK première at the Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this year.
Vile makes a point of revelling in the years in which Becker was able to play guitar, giving the first third of Not Dead Yet more of a rockumentary feel. Archive footage of Becker’s big-haired, leather-trousered teenage years goes some way to demonstrating just how much potential he had, not only in terms of musical capability, but also stage presence. A charismatic character, Becker is presented as the lovable face of heavy metal. His parents recall how he used to tell them that he didn’t feel damaged enough to be a true rock star; nothing bad had happened to him. “Don’t worry, bad things will happen to you,” they told him.
Vile does a good job of introducing the documentary’s cast of big name metallers for those unfamiliar with the genre. Crucially though, David Lee Roth is absent, with Vile speculating in the post-screening Sheffield Doc/Fest Q&A that he may never have received the message about appearing in the film. However, there are plenty of metal alumni who do make it onto the big screen, with former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman being of particular note, having previously formed neo-classical metal band Cacophony with Becker during their early years. A sequence in which the pair are comically shown striking ‘metal poses’ for promotional photographs is one of the most memorable in the film. Whilst the names dropped might mean more for fans – many of whom provided crowd-funding for the project – there’s no mistaking what was at stake for Becker in terms of his musical career.
Yet the film takes a tragic turn when Becker is given the ALS diagnosis and, evidently, the home video cameras are put away. While there is relatively little footage to document his deterioration, we do see images of a pale and thin Becker, bound first to a wheelchair, and then to his bed. His parents recall the worsening of his condition, and his then-girlfriend, Serrana, talks of how she saw the signs of him slipping into a coma. Although Not Dead Yet sadly drops some of it’s artistic presentation at this point – which had been a tad reminiscent of American – The Bill Hicks Story – it remains just as captivating. However, the film does not linger on Becker’s unavoidably negative prognosis for long and, like Becker, seems determined to keep focus on the music.
It is in the third act that Becker’s story goes from simply absorbing to truly incredible. Although he states that ALS has “crippled [his] body and speech but not [his] mind,” never is this more evident than when he is able to start making music again. His family reveal how changes in diet and care have helped him to improve, to a certain extent, and we are shown how he continues to record music using a system developed by his father, with help from his guitar-playing brother. A prolific composer, Becker’s passion for making music appears not to have been dampened by his inability to play, and to say that his determination to write music using eye movements alone is impressive would be an understatement.
Vile is clearly passionate about his project, having first contacted Becker with the idea over ten years ago while he was still a film student. Yet there is a certain sense that there is just too much of Becker’s story to be told in just 90 minutes. The plethora of stunning girlfriends who come and go are somewhat glossed over, and the significance of the religious ceremonies which Becker attends during the film is only fully explained with a visit to his website (www.jasonbecker.com), where his search for spiritual enlightenment is made clear. “Jason’s story is legendary,” reveals Vile, “there’s a lot of mythology surrounding his story” – a point which is no doubt true, but only vaguely hinted at with visits from a handful of overwhelmed fans during the film.
Yet Vile is nothing if not honest as a filmmaker. He explained at the Q&A that Becker’s father actually gave up a career as an artist to look after him, and admitted “I don’t know if it came through very well in the film”. It doesn’t, but his integrity is refreshing. What is clear is that Vile isn’t simply a director looking for an profitable subject; there’s no uncomfortable sense of exploitation here. He’s a fan, who’s making every effort to do this story justice. Of course, Becker does indeed prove to be a fascinating subject, his personality and ambition seemingly unhampered by his condition. A unique tale with a humble star, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is heartening to watch.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is released in the UK on 16th November 2012.