Sometimes, when an inspiring true-life story is fitted into the frames of a well-meaning documentary, much of the inspiration gets squeezed right out. The story that remains is intriguing without being transporting – the facts are all there but the emotion is largely lost in translation. In Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, the fault isn’t hard to find: Blame the translator, whose cinematic skills fall distinctly short of his good intentions.
In the case of director Jesse Vile, the problem starts with his stolidly linear and chronological approach to the subject. Although the title more than hints at trouble to come, Vile steers clear of it initially, content to tap the family video archives to introduce Jason as young boy. We first seem him merrily strumming a guitar to Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. Then his mother and father appear on camera to chart his emergence as a musical prodigy. Not yet 12, he could duplicate a Clapton riff down to the last note; in high school, he graduated from rock to Bach, mastering counterpoint and classical theory; still a teenager, he was wowing them in Japan on a solo tour.
His hair a mass of pre-Raphaelite curls, cascading over a fresh-faced smile, the callow Jason looks the picture of promise, untempted by the usual perils of the musician’s road and rarely seen without his instrument in hand: “He practised all the time.” Buoyant by nature, he was troubled only by his lack of troubles. His mom recalls him making this artistic complaint: “I don’t have character in my eyes. Something bad has to happen to me.”
Yes, the foreshadowing is clumsy, as the doc creeps towards its revelation. At 19, Jason successfully auditioned for David Lee Roth and landed “the most coveted rock gig on the planet at the time.” He was on the verge of stardom when a doctor’s visit to treat a slight limp prompted a dark diagnosis: ALS. And a darker prognosis: 3 to 5 years to live. The subsequent footage reveals his precipitous decline from canes to wheelchair to a skeletal figure on the very brink of “CO2 narcosis.” Unwisely, Vile tries to gild the drama here, spiralling through a surreal montage of the once-robust Jason, then fading to white. Wanting to ramp up our response, he only succeeds in deflecting it, robbing a stark moment of its emotional clarity.
If the near-death scene is badly handled, happily, the resurrection is not. Our first sight of Jason in the present is as astonishing as his translated words: “The life came back to my body.” Indeed – his skin tone is healthy, his frame filled out. To be sure, the disease has trapped his active mind in a paralyzed body but, defying the odds 22 long years after the original diagnosis, he is assuredly not dead yet. Far from it. Jason communicates with his eyes via an alphabetized quadrant designed by his dad; similarly, he uses a computer to extract from his teeming brain, single note by single note, the music that still lies within. His compositions, like his situation, are uniquely complex and, when we hear them recorded, very rewarding.
Not surprisingly, Jason’s admirers – family, caregivers, friends, fans, fellow musicians – are legion. But when he states, “I don’t think I’m special – I’m lucky,” he does himself a disservice. Clearly, he’s both. This doc, however, is neither. Instead, the film is an unremarkable exercise in craft dedicated to a thoroughly remarkable artist – the tale is sublime, the telling only serviceable.