Get ready to put whatever trivial bullshit you were planning to bitch and moan over today on hold: The upcoming documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is imbued with the kind of uplifting against all odds triumph and spellbinding never-say-die persistence that reorients perspective in a serious way.
After making a name for himself in Cacophony with a Megadeth-bound Marty Friedman and releasing the well-received solo effort Perpetual Burn, neo-classical shred metal guitarist Jason Becker stood on the cusp of superstardom at the close of the Eighties. Alas, at age twenty Becker was diagnosed with the Lou Gehrig’s disease that would soon rob him of his virtuosic dexterity and freedom of movement. That’s the last most of us heard of Becker, but, happily, it is not where his story ends — in Not Dead Yet we learn he continues to compose music employing little save his eyes, chin, modern technology, and an iron will.
“I didn’t want the film to focus on the disease,” director Jesse Vile told Decibel during a short break in his preparations for the impending world premiere of Not Dead Yet at the Cinequest Film Festival, “but rather more on Jason and his family’s battle to keep their dreams alive despite tremendous odds.”
I understand you’re a serious aficionado of guitar music. Is that love the genesis of Not Dead Yet?
I’m a big fan of the guitar and guitar music — especially guys that play with so much passion and feeling as Jason does. When I was 15-years-old my guitar teacher at the time introduced me to Jason and Cacophony. I immediately fell in love with Perpetual Burn and just thought it really stood out from so many other guitar-centric albums. You could really feel the beauty and emotion in Jason’s playing and he was only an 18-year-old kid at the time he recorded it. The natural, raw talent of this guy was so mysterious and magnetic…What I remember most were those beautiful bends in the intro that really made me feel like this guy was different and had more to say. It sounded unearthly and I immediately fell in love with his playing and music. I also loved that after he tears it up for half the song he breaks it down and shows how he can rock and have fun as well.
Jason really understands the importance of dynamics and I think that’s really what made him stand out for me. Then when I learned more about him I just thought he was such an incredible human being and always thought his story should be told.
What were your touchstones for the film? I know Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells a similar story.
Jason’s story is an interesting one in that it isn’t your typical rock star story. It isn’t a musician-becomes-famous-gets-hooked-on-drugs-nearly-dies-and-then-redeems-himself kind of story you hear so often. Those are all fine but Jason’s story is so much deeper in that it is really a story about love, family and the strength of the human spirit. It’s a much more universal story that everyone can identify with on some level. I didn’t think I could sum up such a powerful story in ten to fifteen minutes so I decided that Jason’s story needed to be a full-length feature. I did read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book and watched the film as well, as I wanted to gain insight into another situation where someone was locked inside of themselves and how they dealt with that situation.
Considering the circumstances, it seems like it must have been difficult to build the trust necessary for the family to let you in.
The Beckers are amazing people who opened up their home to us and made us feel really comfortable and welcome. It did take a bit of convincing at first to gain their trust as they’ve had a few cases where people wanted to make films about Jason in the past and then just gave up after putting them through so much hard work. They were reluctant to take on another big project again but I was persistent. One way I showed them that I was serious and that I could make a good film was I took all the videos I could find off of Jason’s website and YouTube and cut a rough trailer and sent it to them. They loved it and gave me the go ahead.
How did spending time around Jason affect you as a person, separate from the film?
It is very inspiring being around Jason — although he’s not so much into the inspiring stuff. Jason just likes to chill out and make people laugh. He really is a goof ball and is so much fun to be around. He generally saves all the deep stuff for his music and when he writes it all just comes pouring out. When you go over to his place and spend time with him and his family you feel this powerful aura of love and inspiration and kindness that is so infectious. Everyone who goes over there says how affecting it is. You walk out of there feeling like a million bucks and you look at the world in a different way for a while. I love it over there and always look forward to visiting.
How involved was Jason in the direction the film took?
Jason was very involved from the start. I wanted him to be a part of the process. I showed him and his family a rough cut of the film to make sure it was accurate and true. They absolutely loved it and felt like I nailed it, which felt like such a huge achievement for me personally. Everyone, including Jason, had a lot of great comments and helped to shape it into a better film in the end. I think everyone hopes that this film will turn new people onto Jason’s music and will play a part in enabling him to continue writing and producing.
How much does Jason’s family figure into Not Dead Yet?
A lot of the film is their story. They play a huge part in Jason’s life. Jason’s dad Gary and his Uncle Ron play a huge part in the reason that Jason is a musician. They were his first guitar teachers and biggest source of inspiration. Also, a disease that is so debilitating as ALS affects everyone and not just the person with it. The Beckers have had to reshape their entire lives, dreams and futures as a result and have sacrificed a lot to stay a close family.
Obviously you made the film because you wanted to tell an extraordinary story. But the music Jason is still creating is also pretty epic/awesome. Is part of your motivation to open those songs up to a wider audience?
I‘d like more people to know about Jason and his music overall so everything he’s doing now and in the future is all a part of that. Hopefully it will turn on new people to his music. I think there is something for everyone in it.
How receptive was the shred guitar community to the documentary? Were Becker’s old cohorts aware of what he was up to?
The shred community was very receptive to the idea. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for a film about Jason to be made and the support we’ve received has been huge. We would never have come this far without their support and I’m so grateful for everyone that has helped along the way. Jason’s friends were also incredibly helpful and up for anything…Everyone was really eager to help but it was a challenge juggling everyone’s schedules. There were a few big musicians who wanted to be a part of the film but were unable due to conflicts with tour and recording schedules. It all worked out in the end though and I’m sure there are other ways more people can be involved now that the film is finished.
What do you hope people will take away from Not Dead Yet?
I’d like people to feel something, be touched in some way, and perhaps use that feeling in their own lives somehow.
This is your first feature-length film and it’s pretty high profile. Tell me a little bit about your background as a filmmaker.
I’ve wanted to make this film for many years and it took me a while before I felt like I was ready to tackle such a huge story that is really dear to many people. I think a lot of the themes in the film aren’t something that a person can really understand until they’ve grown up a little and have gained life experiences for themselves. Had I made this film as a younger person I probably would have made it more shred-heavy and delved more into Jason’s musical style and playing. But I didn’t want to make just a fan film as I think that would be selling Jason’s story short. I wanted to make a film that was universal and that had a human story at its core that many people could identify with.