Jason Becker is relatively unknown on these shores…unless you have a penchant for ‘80s hair metal or are obsessed with the more technical aspects of playing a guitar. But 'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet' sets to right this wrong, with a funny, touching and poignant documentary about the heart-breaking tale of the Californian shred guitar genius.
It follows the life and guitar-playing antics of Jason, from his first guitar given to him aged five at Christmas to touring the world as a guitar prodigy at 16. Just three years later the teenager bagged the most coveted rock gig on the planet at the time, performing with former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth. It was clear that the young musician was set to become one of the all-time greatest speed guitar players. His remarkable achievements are put into context by those who were there to witness this shy kid outplaying rock monsters with such apparent ease.
It’s always a risk basing a film around the accounts of talking heads, as they can either be a great asset to the storytelling or be incredibly annoying. But director and producer Jesse Ville has done a great job weaving together the various accounts of Jason Becker’s life. There seems to be no limit to the remarkable stories of this guitar-playing obsessive from his parents and friends – one friend even recalls walking into Jason’s room where he was nonchalantly playing the guitar with one hand while the other hand practiced his yo-yo tricks.
One of the most unusual things about Jason Becker was that although he could have had the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that many dream of having, he wasn’t interested in the trappings of groupie sex, drink and drugs. The strongest word in his vocabulary was “dang” and while on the road he regularly called his parents to check in with them. He was a real talent, an inspiration and all-round nice guy who just wanted to play his guitar.
With a title such as 'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet' you expect there to be some contribution from the man himself, but he remains strangely absent (apart from childhood and teenage videos of course). Towards the end of the film you understand why. Shortly after recording an album with Roth he was diagnosed with the tragically debilitating and incurable motor neurone condition ALS – or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jason suffered severe nerve damage that has left him wheelchair bound and unable to play guitar, speak or even do anything for himself.
The film is built up in such a way that when Jason’s illness is finally revealed it’s a devastating blow. The heart-breaking revelation is tempered by the extraordinary fact that not only has Jason surpassed his doctors’ estimation that he had three to five years to live, but he has continued to record music. Twenty-two years after his diagnosis, he is still alive (making him the longest ALS survivor) and clearly the most determined as he’s since released five albums, painstakingly communicating musical notes to his devoted dad via eye movements.
Director Jesse Vile documents Jason’s incredible story through videos, interviews and of course the music that he continues to create. Perhaps the one thing that the film fails to do is to show the dark side of his illness. There’s never a sense of his frustration or upset. His parents remain upbeat throughout, despite the tragedy of their talented son being trapped inside a body that no longer functions.
At the start of the 'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet' his mother says: “It’s a much bigger reason than anybody out there knows why he’s still here...But he’s still here” but the subsequent 87 minutes demonstrate why. Jason Becker is an inspirational figure who has made huge achievements and against all the odds continued to make music. A legend amongst guitar-enthusiasts, his story definitely deserves recognition and to be told to a wider audience.
As the first feature film from Jesse Ville, 'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet' is a great documentary, even for those who aren’t fans of shred guitar and ‘80s hair metal and it will certainly leave you wanting to know more about this amazing human being.
'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet' is released in the UK on 16th November, through Dogwoof.