Director: Jesse Vile
Starring: Jason Becker, Ehren Becker, Gary Becker, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman
Synopsis: Jason Becker was an extraordinarily talented guitarist whose skill caught the attention of the rock world. As his stardom grew Jason’s health declined and within a few months of becoming part of David Lee Roth’s new band, Jason was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Jason still lives, 22 years after his initial diagnosis, and continues to write music through special computer software.
Documentaries are a thriving form at the moment, with a string of successes including Senna, The Imposter, Searching For Sugarman and Crossfire Hurricane. With the internet allowing for more extensive research, this type of filmmaking is fast becoming a popular starting point for directors and writers. One such upstart is Jesse Vile, an industry mogul once part of the Raindance Film Festival, bringing his directorial debut, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet to audiences all around the world. It focuses on the very talented Jason Becker, a guitarist with an innate skill for music. Some, who are not aware of the entire story, may be deterred by the first part of the film that looks at Jason’s abilities. It is easy to think that the documentary is purely about the rise of an adroit guitarist. Give it time and the story changes dramatically, leading to a tale that is enriching and distressing. Music fans will be won over by the documentary – you do not have to have to be a fan of Jason’s music or shred-guitar style – as it promotes the purity of music and what it can do for a person. Those not partial to music can still take something from Not Dead Yet though may not respond to all of its messages.
Bookended with a fuzzy home video recording of Jason and his uncle playing “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the jovial nature of the eponymous guitarist is never forgotten. With the grave matter of Becker's terminal disease, this documentary could have become a grim depiction of a life half lived. Instead, with loving zeal, Jesse Vile and the friends and family of Jason honour a life lived to the fullest. Vile's structure and pace of this documentary is expert - chronicling the years of practice and play, up until the moment of standstill which then gradually evolves into a story of the strength of human spirit.
Set out in a three-act structure, Vile compiles an extensive and deeply-personal account of the ill-fated Becker. The first two acts give you an idea of Jason’s personality and enthralling expertise through archive footage and interviews from friends and family. Sadly, ALS has left Jason unable to speak yet in the third act we still have chance to hear his thoughts as he communicates through the “vocal-eyes” technique devised by his father. These scenes are incredibly interesting and wondrously illustrate the methods used to allow Jason to still interact with people. How Jason remains active is phenomenal; his familial aid (along with his ex-partner’s care) is heart-warming and educational. It is a shame that the third act runs so short that scenes like this are not extended, giving you a fascinating, if brief, look at the juxtaposition of paralysis and pursuit.
Vile’s talent at storytelling has not been explored to the fullest yet (this being his first feature) though it’s clear that he has been educated on the art-form. He unearths a ton of material on Jason to begin with, showing the gradual ascent to stardom; on their own these elements would appear dull and may not emphasize the affability of Jason, so Vile underscores them with candid interviews. Friends and family are questioned in an assertive, yet supportive manner – enabling the viewer to hear stories about the highly private aspects of Jason’s life without it seeming exploitative. Vile needn’t depend on clichéd customs when it comes to generating empathy, he relies on the audience having a heart and responding to his depiction of Jason’s life.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is a sweet, informative and poignant documentary – one of the best of the year. It centres on a charming figure whose determination to live his life, despite damning circumstances, is astoundingly strong. Life-affirming and memorable, and something to recommend to all your friends and family.
By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth. Interview with director here.