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Love song to Jason Becker, a lost guitar hero

Becker in Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet: Diagnosed in 1990 at 21 with ALS, he was told he had three to five years to live. He is still composing, but it’s a slow process.

Courtesy of Opus Pocus Films

Jesse Vile. C'mon, if ever there was a made-up name, it's that one – a clear homage to Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders, Billy Zoom, Mitch Ryder and all the other noms du rock (Johnny Rotten! Johnny Cougar!) that have rolled through history.

But no, the dude on the telephone from his apartment in London insists Jesse Vile is his real name and not something concocted to bolster his badness bona fides as a 31-year-old guitar-playing producer/director whose first feature-length film, hitting theatres this week, just happens to be a documentary about a rock-guitar virtuoso with big brown eyes, big hair and a big cult following who, on the cusp of international fame, finds himself brought low by Lou Gehrig's disease.

Turns out there's "a whole bunch of Viles" in and around Philadelphia (including the very suspiciously named indie-rock star Kurt Vile) where Jesse, the middle sibling of three, was born to a "blue-collar guy, super into Schwarzenegger movies" and a kindergarten-teaching mom in 1981. "It was a pretty normal Pennsylvania suburban upbringing," the filmmaker avers, vile surname notwithstanding. It could have been worse: Earlier this year, as Vile's documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, rounded the film-festival circuit, "One guy in a review, I guess he got the letters mixed up, he called me Evil. It was 'Jesse Evil,' 'director Evil.' It was really funny. At first I was like, 'Aw, I'd better tell him,' then I thought, 'No way. Leave it. It's brilliant.' "

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There is, in fact, nothing evil let alone vile about Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. If anything, it's an unabashed love story – the love of a Paganini-like prodigy for his music, the enduring love of the prodigy's parents for him and for each other, the love of fans and fellow musicians (including such hammer-on/pull-off masters as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani), the determined, resourceful love of his caregivers and the love Becker gives in return. Becker should not be here: diagnosed in 1990 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, he was told he had three, maybe five years to live. Only 21 at the time, Becker was on the verge of guitar-hero greatness, having just won the guitar chair in a band fronted by legendary Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth – what one of Vile's interviewees calls "the most coveted rock gig on the planet at the time." Gradually but steadily, Becker lost the ability to play, write, walk, talk, becoming completely paralyzed by the mid-1990s, save for the ability to move his eyes and twitch some facial muscles. Yet at 43 Jason Becker lives, miraculously, and, in his fashion, thrives, even composing music with the aid of an ingenious alphabet-oriented eye communication system, punningly called Vocal Eyes, devised by his father.

Vile first heard about Becker from his guitar teacher when he was 15 or 16 and, upon listening to the Becker catalogue on the aptly named Shrapnel Records label, became a fan. So much so that while still in film school he approached Becker with a plan to make a documentary about the musician's life. "But I never pursued it, blessedly, because I didn't know what the hell I was doing and I was just super-scared of screwing up the story and not being to be able to deliver something that was any good. I mean, he's such a beloved guy." Still, Vile held onto the idea. After travelling to London in 2004 to do a master's degree in media, working on some short films and producing three instalments of the Raindance Independent Film Festival, he became convinced he could, at last, do Becker filmic justice. Overtures to that effect were made in mid-2010 and, after some hesitation from the Becker family, he got the go-ahead, beginning principal photography later that year.

Of course, it was a hassle. Vile, for instance, thought he might get financial support from various ALS societies but beyond providing connections with medical specialists, this didn't happen. Eventually, 75 per cent of the documentary's budget came courtesy 500 or so small investors, solicited by appeals on the film's website and from the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform. Also, Vile living in London and Becker based in Richmond near San Francisco precluded director and crew from just going over to their subject's house every day. A high degree of co-ordination was required so that when Vile did fly into California he sometimes found himself bagging four or five interviews a day.

Vile finished production on the film in late winter of 2011, followed by almost 11 months of post-production. When he sent a rough cut to Becker's personal computer, the musician's reaction to his labour of love was . . . negative. In an e-mail earlier this week (questions were sent by e-mail to his home in California and and answered by an intermediary fluent in Vocal Eyes), Becker characterizes that initial response as "a silly situation. When we got a link of the movie from Jesse, it was late at night and I had to start my bedtime routine [which can take as long as three hours]. I didn't want to wait until morning, though, so I just listened to it [as it played in another room] without watching it. I got all nervous about things that didn't make sense without the visual(s). I wrote Jesse all my concerns [according to Vile, Becker said: 'Oh, man, you didn't use my best songs and all my best solos and I sound horrible.'] and he said, 'Ummmmm, it is a movie. Watch it!'" When he did, Becker "loved it. I had some suggestions, mainly about music," he adds, but overall "I think Jesse did a brilliant job."

A few years ago there was talk of doing a filmed dramatization of Becker's life starring Matt Schulze (of Fast Five semi-fame). But "right now nothing is happening with that," Becker says. "I'm just enjoying what Jesse did. He really changed our lives with his honest and moving film. I'm happy that a Hollywood movie didn't come out before Jesse's documentary. Hollywood doesn't always nail the story."

In the meantime, Becker has just released the first volume of a projected three-volume series titled Boy Meets Guitar. "These are songs I played and recorded when I was, 15, 16, 17 years old. It has some of my first compositions as well as pieces by Villa-Lobos and Paganini." He continues to write fresh material, of course, – "although right now I'm getting over an infection and don't have much energy. I have a couple of new songs done and am about to start another one. I am sure I will release an album of this music sometime. It takes so long, though."

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet opens Friday in Toronto and Dec. 14 in Ottawa. The DVD release is scheduled for Dec. 18.

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James More


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