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An account of a career, if not a life, cut short by ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Jesse Vile‘s Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is initially motivated by awe at its subject’s former guitar prowess but becomes a case study of someone who has lived far longer than those struck by the disease are allowed to expect. Theatrical appeal is limited, but small-screen prospects are strong with guitar fans and those unfortunate enough to have loved ones with ALS.
Becker is now completely paralyzed, unable even to speak. But Vile keeps him almost entirely offscreen until the last thirty minutes, preferring to introduce him as he once was: Uncommonly positive and single-minded in his obsession with the electric guitar.
His parents describe an almost freakish attachment, with young Jason studying licks in between bites at the dinner table and keeping a miniature guitar in the car for practice during red lights. Video footage shot at high school talent shows and elsewhere backs up their child-prodigy claims: Though the hyperactive style isn’t for everyone, Becker did what he did extraordinarily well.
After attracting the attention of record producer Mike Varney, Becker was paired with future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman; the two recorded and toured as Cacophony, a mid-’80s hair metal band described here as “the beginning of Shred Guitar.” Others would say the trend dates back at least to Eddie Van Halen, whose shoes Becker would eventually (sort of) fill: A few years into the solo career of Van Halen’s former bandmate David Lee Roth, Roth picked Becker as his new six-string virtuoso.
It’s heartbreaking to hear Becker’s parents describe the sequence of events. They noticed him limping slightly as he headed off to audition for his dream gig; his symptoms worsened as he recorded with Roth’s band; by the time Roth went on the road, Becker’s muscles had degenerated to the point he couldn’t join the tour. (Vile was evidently unable to interview Roth, but other band members offer very affectionate memories of their short time working with Becker.)
Like other ALS patients, Becker was told he probably had five years to live at most. That was over two decades ago. We witness what appears to be a perfect combination of never-say-die patient, supportive and imaginative family (his father designed his own system of eye-motion communication), and creative drive: Becker has laboriously used his eyes to compose intricate music, realized largely by computers. Those musical efforts (and reissues of pre-ALS recordings) have helped keep Becker’s fan base alive, and scenes of tribute concerts give the film a welcome final uplift.
Production Company: Opus Pocus Films
Director-Producer: Jesse Vile
Executive producers: Oli Harbottle, Joanne Fishburn
Director of photography: Carl Burke
Music: Michael Lee Firkins
Editor: Gideon Gold
No rating, 86 minutes
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