By the end of Jesse Vile’s engaging docu, even those who had never heard of Jason Becker will probably leave as fans. At 19, Becker snagged perhaps the most sought-after gig in rock ‘n’ roll — lead guitarist for David Lee Roth — and contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), with a prognosis of advancing paralysis and death within five years. Two decades later, he is paralyzed, alive and still composing music. Deftly deploying homemovies and videos of the guitar phenom in his prime, Vile traces a tragedy that stubbornly refuses to conclude on that note. A robust limited-theatrical and tube future looks likely.
Already a musical prodigy, the young-teen Becker is shown in homemovies as he and his uncle, who taught him to play, joyously jam together on the living-room couch (this footage returns as ironic counterpoint once Jason loses mobility). Becker is as likely to lend his lightning fast (or “shred”) guitar stylings to complex arrangements of Bach and Paganini as to variations on Eric Clapton, and his performance at a high-school talent show, captured on tape, not only bears witness to the skill of the fledgling virtuoso, but also displays his boundless, cheerful energy.
At 16, Becker paired up with Marty Friedman (future lead guitarist of Megadeath) to form Cacophony, releasing two well-received albums emphasizing technical mastery. Glimpses of the two curly-haired teens clowning around while trying to look suitably “heavy metal” at a photo shoot attest to their growing visibility on the hard-rock scene, but also to their basic lack of rocker megalomania. Becker followed with a solo album before landing the Roth gig; he even managed to cut an album with Roth’s band, but was too weak to tour with it.
Vile, a guitarist himself, eschews facile heartstring-tugging in his treatment of Becker’s subsequent struggle with ALS, concentrating instead on the support of friends and family in keeping him engaged and productive. In marked contrast to Julian Schnabel’s fictionalized re-enactment of the isolation of paralysis in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Vile’s objectively shot docu stresses the creative busyness that surrounds its subject. Becker’s ex-fiancee comes up with a diet that vastly improves the usual liquid intake, while his father devises a system of communication, using eye movements to spell out words or indicate musical notes, that functions with remarkable speed and accuracy, allowing Becker a wide range of expressivity.
If Vile’s film comes off as inspirational or uplifting, it is not due to glowing testimonials or quavering paeans of praise, but rather to the easy exchanges among Becker, old friends and fellow musicians, employing total acceptance without mawkish pity or lowered expectations.
Lensing, editing and sound mixing flow unobtrusively, and the incorporation of archival material is especially effective.