‘Faithfully’ yours

One of the perils of achieving “classic rock” status is the brand that carries you — your sound — can also imprison you. Listeners come to expect a certain package that makes you you, and if you deviate, you’re not you. Make sense?

Rare is the classic rock act that’s able to zig when it’s expected to zag. Fleetwood Mac famously did it with its jarring “Tusk” album to follow up the radio-friendly smash”Rumours.” Lou Reed did the same with the near-career killer “Metal Machine Music.” And Bruce Springsteen shook up his rousing, full-throttle catalog with the barren collection of demo cuts that comprised “Nebraska.”

But a band like, say, Journey, isn’t capable of such leaps. In its 1980s heyday, Journey had lots going for it, churning out a mix of rock songs and ballads performed with a deft balance between Neal Schon’s screaming guitar and Jonathan Cain’s keyboard hooks. Tying the two together was arguably the band’s biggest asset — Steve Perry’s soaring vocals. Whether at a school dance or on the boombox behind the gas station counter, it was through Perry that you immediately identified a Journey song as a Journey song. It was the one feature the band could not afford to lose.

But that’s exactly what happened. Between the usual “creative differences” squabbles and Perry’s increasing struggles to keep his vocal range as he aged, Journey reluctantly parted ways with its singer on the expectation that he could be replaced. It was easier said than done. The band muddled through two decades of lineup shuffles and comeback attempts before hitting the jackpot with Filipino cover singer Arnel Pineda.

Even for casual or non-Journey fans, the story is an amazing one, and worthy subject matter for the PBS Independent Lens documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’.” After years of getting by with temporary Perry soundalikes, Schon and Cain scoured through YouTube to discover their gem in Pineda, whose vocal resemblance to Perry was uncanny. He successfully auditioned, joined the group on tour and cut a new album with them. With Schon and Cain as sharp as ever on their instruments, Pineda provided the final piece of Journey’s wayback machine, bringing fans as close to 1983 as they’ll ever get.

But, as tends to be the case with Independent Lens documentaries, there’s more to this story. We see how Pineda, a considerably younger and less experienced musician, fits in with the band. Schon and Cain tutor their prized protege with the detailed attention of Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. It’s not so much a partnership between co-equals as a business arrangement. It’s clear from the outset — Pineda will enjoy wealth, fame, even some degree of musical development, but with the ironclad condition, and one he willingly accepts, that he must sound like Steve Perry. If he can’t deliver, night in and night out, he’s done. And surely even Schon and Cain realize that without Pineda — or miraculously discovering yet another Perry soundalike — they’re finished as well.

So while “Don’t Stop Believin'” highlights the degree to which a rock group’s brand controls its identity, the deeper philosophical question is the surrender of one man’s identity to another’s. What’s it like to know that one’s raison d’être is to be someone else? By outward appearances, Pineda seems well adjusted to this reality. It certainly beats the alternative of singing covers at Filipino karaoke bars. But it’s a chilling conclusion that his fortunes — and Journey’s — forever answer to the tune called by Steve Perry.


Football vs. baseball

This is my favorite time of year for sports — when football and baseball align in a 3-week smorgasbord of athletic overload. Football season is just getting started, but it doesn’t take much for the NFL to ramp up to full speed. While nothing is decided in terms of division champs and playoff qualifiers, we’re already beginning to see the separation of contenders from pretenders. Meanwhile, baseball is in the sweet spot of its postseason. Soon will come the pomp and circumstance of the World Series, with every pitch, every swing, every scratch of the groin analyzed to pieces, and the game inevitably loses the sense of fun that the league divisional and championship series somehow manage to retain.

One of the opportunities that simultaneous football and baseball presents is a head-to-head comparison between two sports that otherwise occupy contrasting seasonal associations. Baseball’s 9-month pilgrimage begins every spring, a yearly renewal of hope that slides into summer laziness as the attrition of 162 games takes its toll on our attention spans. Football seasons congeal in sweaty August training camps before debuting under the crisp autumn sun and maturing through gray November rains and December flurries, punctuated by playoff runs to an exotic location for the February Super Bowl.

But for a few weeks, baseball and football occupy the same space in relatively peaceful coexistence. I enjoy each for its own merits, but during this time I consistently find baseball to be the superior game. Here are my layman’s observations that bring me to that conclusion:

Individual conflict: Playoff baseball stages some extraordinary drama, and a primary factor therein is the existential struggle between two individuals — the pitcher and the batter. Yes, fielders and base runners have a role in moving the game forward, but nothing happens until the pitcher decides to throw a pitch and the batter decides whether to swing or not. And so much of what unfolds during the game depends on the actions of those two men. Football’s action also tends to operate around a small number of skill players, but it never reaches the elemental faceoff between two individuals that plays out in each baseball at-bat.

Failure is built in: A baseball game by rule cannot proceed unless an offensive player makes an out. That applies a certain humility across a batting lineup, from sluggers to pinch hitters, who must collectively produce 27 outs, win or lose, in order to complete the game. In football, it’s possible to have everything go right for an offense. If it’s a 77-0 whitewash, the clock still runs, eventually bringing the misery to an end.

Gender inclusion: Football in many ways reinforces traditional, pre-feminist gender roles. Men do “battle” on the field while cheerleaders prance and preen from the sidelines. In the broadcast booth, men, many of whom are former players, offer thoughts both serious and glib on the action below. Women are relegated to “soft” off-the-field features, passing along team injury reports and mindless halftime interviews with the coach. Baseball doesn’t do much better, but at least its cousin, softball, fully welcomes women to participate at the high school and college level, providing experience with which to appreciate the finer points of the game. Just ask Jessica Mendoza, a former softball star who does color commentary for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Imagine that happening in an NFL broadcast.

Diversity: The Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones recently complained that baseball is no longer a black man’s sport. True, it can’t match the almost 70 percent share of NFL rosters that are black, but is that an accurate reflection of our society, or the world? Look through MLB rosters and you’ll find not just the whites and blacks that dominate the NFL, but players hailing from myriad Latin American and Asian nations, bringing a healthy mix of ethnicities and languages into the locker room.

Broadcasting tradition: This year has seen venerable ESPN NFL analyst (and Hall of Famer) Tom Jackson retire, with colleague Chris Berman soon to follow. The knock on them was the sports media game had passed them by, that the younger generation of fans couldn’t relate to them. Baseball, meanwhile, just shed a tear at the departure of longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. Bob Uecker remains a fixture in the Brewers’ broadcast booth, and no one is in a hurry to shuffle him out the door. Yes, they’re in their 80s, they don’t shout or sloganeer and they’re no social media mavens, but there’s something to be said for treasuring the game’s elder statesmen.

Of course, baseball isn’t perfect. Its staid traditionalism and comparative snail’s pace could be its undoing as younger fans disdain a sport that doesn’t engage with them on their terms. By contrast, the NFL has embraced digital media marketing like no other sport and continues to tinker with its rules to maximize exciting play, leaving it better positioned for the future. At the financial level, its salary cap makes small market teams economically viable and ensures a competitive league. MLB has taken baby steps in this direction, but it remains largely a league of haves and have nots.

All said, this is nothing more than a fun little exercise, a comparison born of the embarrassment of riches I’m currently enjoying. In a few weeks the World Series will anoint a champion, leaving me to devote my attention to the NFL season. Before I know it, the Super Bowl will bring that season to a close, and I’ll no longer have the luxury of considering the merits and flaws of two sports in repose.

Small tales

There are so many remarkable innovations that make Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a stylish ’40s noir set in grimy 1970s New York City. Its script calls for an alarming scale of violence in the act of saving one person. And most prescient, Robert De Niro delivers a spot-on portrayal of an archetype — the angry white male — that would soon become a force in the American political landscape.

But one overlooked contribution “Taxi Driver” brought to filmmaking was the use of the taxi as a storytelling device. Scorcese didn’t do as much with this as he could have, but the movie hints at the fascinating possibilities of bringing characters into temporary interaction with one another, setting up one of my favorite narrative components — the vignette.

While the vignettes presented through the windshield of Travis Bickle’s cab are a minor element of the movie, other filmmakers are sure to have picked up on the technique. Case in point: Matthew A. Cherry’s “9 Rides,” which recently screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Shot entirely on the iPhone 6, “9 Rides” is a feature-length film consisting of, as the title indicates, nine rides an Uber driver takes on over the course of New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles.

What results is a series of miniplays, each bringing varying levels of interest and pathos to the back seat of the unnamed Uber driver’s SUV. Some are innocuous. A daughter is transferred from mother’s to father’s custody. A flight attendant grabs a nap on the way to the airport. Others offer a glimpse into lives headed for misery. One couple’s bickering suggests an abusive relationship, but the short ride across town isn’t enough to confirm our suspicions. After considering intervention, the driver drops them at their stop, leaving us to wonder how that story will end.

The rides unfold against the backdrop of a personal crisis of sorts for the driver as he grapples with jealousy and uncertainty over his fiancee’s whereabouts that New Year’s Eve. That storyline draws to a somewhat predictable conclusion, but it serves to hold together a film that would otherwise be a series of unrelated interludes on the streets of L.A. As a result, we get the rare film that can be enjoyed in its entirety or in pieces.