Friday 16 November 2012

In the key of life: "Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet"

In the week of Amour, the real-life story of Jason Becker assumes a greater poignancy - and proves more welcome yet. For those of you whose hair doesn't extend below the collar, Becker was a minor rock god of the late 1980s, a poodly, noodly guitar prodigy who came to prominence with the aptly named thrash collective Cacophony, and was then headhunted (if you will, hairhunted) by none other than Dave Lee Roth himself as a replacement for the guitarist's guitarist Steve Vai, when the latter set out from the Roth band in the direction of a solo career. The testimonials assembled in Jesse Vile's intimate and affecting profile Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet paint a picture of Becker as a naturally quiet young man, one who didn't start talking until late in his infancy, and would more commonly be encountered backstage calling his parents than indulging in the excess of the 80s rock scene. Becker preferred to turn up his amps and let his instrument do the talking.

This preference became a necessity when, in 1989, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease, a potentially fatal neurodegeneration that robbed him of his speech and confined him to a wheelchair; the film's emotional stakes are set in one early, lowering cut from the lithe axeman tearing shit up on stage to the wordless, sedentary figure of Becker as he is today, wide, imploring eyes peering up from over a trach tube, a motionless rocker for whom the phrase "spinal tap" is no laughing matter, but a painful medical reality. Over twenty years on from the initial diagnosis, everyone on screen is mature enough to be able to reflect upon the tragedy that befell the film's subject, robbed of his dreams at a moment he appeared set to realise every last one of them. Vile - who, contra the name, turns out to be a total sweetheart - has some fun with degraded VHS footage of the young Jason posing for album covers with his erstwhile bandmate Marty Friedman ("Is my guitar straight?"), but he realises these are also memories Becker might reasonably want to cling to, and need to be handled as such.

That overriding compassion, and the hope Vile begins to massage into the film from the halfway point, is what distinguishes Not Dead Yet from Haneke's cramped and limiting vision of human frailty. As the documentary's title suggests, ALS didn't entirely put paid to Becker's creative endeavours: if the fingers that once gave rise to colossal, face-melting licks have withered, the mind pulling the strings has remained alert, and the second half documents how Becker has harnessed new forms of technology to compose even more complex musical works. The quiet lad has found alternative means of communication: the intricate, fascinating system of "mental telepathy" he's worked out with his loving father-turned-amanuensis Ken aligns this story with that of Jean-Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), allowing Becker to narrate, toss out knob gags, and eventually claim for himself the title of the sexiest man alive. (Once a rock god, always a rock god.) Sensitively handled, without sacrificing its subject's clearly formidable spark, it's also - as it should be - very effectively scored by Becker and Michael Lee Firkins, each riff we hear striking the exact right chords of melancholy, regret and defiance. Rock on.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on December 3. 

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