DOXA 2012: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet tracks the course of a debilitating disease
As April Wine once sagely noted, rock ’n’ roll is a vicious game. Sometimes, however, it’s got nothing on life, this proven by Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.
Straddling the line between profoundly sad and powerfully inspirational, director Jesse Vile’s doc focuses on Jason Becker, a former guitar prodigy from the working-class section of Richmond, California. At age 14 he’d mastered the back catalogues of both Van Halen and Eric Clapton, and, that not being enough, also figured out how to play Mozart’s greatest hits speed-metal style.
By Becker’s late teens, he was up-and-coming cock-of-the-walk with dudes for whom lipstick, hairspray, and Spandex were part of every hard-partying night on the Sunset Strip. After teaming up with future Megadeth axeman Marty Friedman in the hair-metal unit Cacophony, he went on to land the then dream job of Steve Vai’s replacement in David Lee Roth’s solo band. Parts of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet find him hanging out in Vancouver during the recording of Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough.
Sadly, Becker would never make the album’s tour. While recording in Lotusland, he began losing his balance, something that was originally attributed to a pinched leg nerve. Tests were run, and, at a time when he was on the cusp of being recognized as a legitimate Guitar Hero, Becker was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The film describes ALS at the “Grim Reaper’s Disease”, partly because there is no treatment for it, and partly because it strikes people in the prime of their lives. By the time we meet Becker as he lives today, he’s in a wheelchair, unable to do anything but move his eyes. But, against all medical odds, he is, as the film’s title suggests, not dead yet.
It’s hard not to be moved by Vile’s film, mostly because Becker, even when he was coming up in the metal world, seemed like a genuinely decent human being (as opposed to one of those douchebags from The Dirt). The director paints the guitarist as a real person, interweaving interviews with friends (Vai, Friedman) and family with colour-saturated Super 8 footage of the artist as a young child, and grainy video of him performing as a wispy-moustache-sporting teen.
Having seen who Becker was makes it all the more powerful when we catch up with him today. Twenty years after his diagnosis, the guitarist is not only alive, but he’s still creating, composing music with a system where, by using eye movement and a visual chart, he’s able to communicate with his fellow musicians.
Is there a sense of sadness at what might have been? Absolutely, mostly because, mentally, Becker is all there, trapped in a body that’s completely shut down. Still, the lasting message of Not Dead Yet is that the guitarist has chosen to make the best of the undeniably lousy hand that life has given him. We should all be so strong.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet plays the Empire Granville 7 Cinemas tonight (May 11).
Watch the trailer for Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.
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