The Movie Diary

One in a million

By Dom Cioffi

Every now and then you run across a life story that seems too incredible, too improbable, and too inconceivable to actually be true.

The story of Arnel Pineda is a perfect example.

Born in the lower class sections of Manila in the Philippines, Arnel’s childhood was disrupted when his mother became terminally ill. Her illness and eventual death devastated the family, leaving them in total financial ruin.

In great debt and with few options, Arnel’s father decided to send his children to live with relatives who could better care for them. But rather than be a burden to his equally poor relatives, Arnel Pineda chose to live on the streets, scavenging for food and sleeping with other homeless children in the city parks. He earned meager money by collecting glass bottles, newspapers, and scrap metal and selling them to local recyclers.

Arnel had little hope in life. In fact, the only thing he did have was a knack for singing – a talent that his mother had seen and encouraged in him.

So at 15 years old and with few other employment options, Arnel joined a local band and began singing cover songs at a small Filipino pizza shop. For years he sang to locals and tourists, emulating all the great rock singers that he had grown up admiring.

Occasionally the band would enter songwriting contests hoping to break through, but the fame they so desired eluded them. Eventually Arnel moved on to other bands, even traveling to China, where he performed cover songs six nights a week for nearly a decade.

As the years passed, Arnel honed his craft by commanding whatever stage he worked on. He grew vocally adept with his singing and just as accomplished with his stage presence, wooing fans wherever he sang. And while he made a name for himself within the localized music community (even releasing an album of original material), fame still eluded him.

Eventually the rock and roll lifestyle took its toll on Arnel. His voice suffered from the relentless singing and his body became exhausted from the constant drug and alcohol abuse so common in performers.

So, after nearly 25 years of belting out cover songs in clubs, Arnel Pineda was burnt out.

And that’s when fate intervened.

The year was 2007 and a fan of Arnel’s decided to upload some videos of him singing to the new video sharing website, YouTube. The footage was low quality and grainy, but the audio was good enough to show off Arnel’s chops.

A few months later, on the other side of the planet, a man sat down at his computer in frustration. He had been auditioning singers for his band and was unhappy with his choices. Out of desperation he began listening to YouTube videos, thinking he might stumble across a viable candidate there.

He was just about to give up because nothing was jumping out at him when Arnel’s video appeared in his search list. He clicked on the play button and listened.

And then he listened again… and again.

Mesmerized by what he saw, the man sent the link of the video to his other bandmates requesting their opinions.

They were all equally impressed.

The next day a formal email was sent to Arnel requesting a conversation between the two. In it, the man explained that his name was Neal Schon, the lead guitarist for the world-famous band Journey. He explained that Journey needed a new lead singer and wondered if Arnel would be interested in coming to the United States to audition.

Arnel was certain it was a joke and decided not to respond. And if not for the intervention of a friend, the story may have ended there.

Eventually Arnel spoke to Neal and arrangements were made for his trip to the U.S. Once he arrived in the studio, he was put through rigorous tests to see if he had the vocal range to handle Journey’s difficult tonal changes.

Everyone in Journey agreed that Arnel was fully capable of singing their catalog; however, there was concern about how he would react onstage in front of thousands of fans. That fear was put to rest after a one-off show in Chile, where Arnel captivated the crowd.

Now the official lead singer of Journey and a national hero in his home country of the Philippines, Arnel has risen from the lowest depths of society to the upper echelons of fame and fortune – and done it all with grace, humility and his own style.

That’s the sort of the scenario that the lead character in this week’s feature, “Ricki and the Flash,” had hoped for when she left her family to chase rock n’ roll fame. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as well for her.

Starring Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield, “Ricki and the Flash” is an emotionally heavy family drama that delves into the damaging effects of divorce and abandonment.

This isn’t the easiest film to watch when it’s laboring through the deeper content, but luckily it’s spliced together with some kick-ass barroom performances that will appeal to any fan of live music.

Check this one out if you’re in the mood for another great Meryl Streep performance, just be prepared for the discomfort that ensues in the process.

A gritty “B-” for “Ricki and the Flash.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at

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