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Heartland pick: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet 

click to enlarge A scene from the film, 'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet'
  • A scene from the film, 'Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet'

The documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet opens with footage of two guys sitting next to each other on a couch. They start strumming their guitars and within a few seconds begin smiling and bouncing along with the music. The bouncing and head-bobbing becomes more exaggerated - the men look like a couple of Muppets. It's a joyous opening that reminds us of the magic of music.

The film focuses on a guitar prodigy whose career as a blazing neo-classical metal guitarist is cut short when he is diagnosed with a devastating illness. Director Jesse Evil's film may cause you to tear up, but the production is not unrelentingly bleak. Re-read the title.

Evil starts off in standard bio style. We meet Jason Becker (born in 1969) and his family. Nice parents, cute kid. Jason gets a guitar at age 5. By his early teens he dazzles pros by performing a Bach fugue that segues into a shredding metal solo.

Jason's father, Gary, recalls his teenage son telling him that his friends were always bitching about their parents and he didn't have anything to say. "I wish you were worse," he told his dad. "I wish I had something to bitch about too," he said to his mother, Pat. "I don't have character in my eyes. Something bad has to happen to me." His mother assured him, "You'll get character. Bad things will happen to you. Don't worry."

Talk about prophetic exchanges.

At 20, Becker secures the coveted lead guitar spot in David Lee Roth's band. He limps at the audition - "probably a pulled hamstring." Becker soon learns the truth. He has ALS (or Lou Gehrig's Disease), a condition that almost always leads to death by causing degeneration of the motor nerves and muscles.

When the prognosis is revealed, director Evil cuts to childhood photos of Jason and his dad. Similar images are used later in the film, proving just as quietly effective with repetition.

The disease takes its toll. Becker moves from using canes to a wheelchair, noting, "Every time I get a twitch, a few days later that muscle is gone." He soon ends up confined to bed.

If this sounds like too much to handle, hang in there, because there are surprises in store. Re-read the title. The last portion of the documentary shows the young man with the character in his eyes making music again. Jason is given a visor that allows him to guide a cursor with his head movements. He clicks the mouse using a chin device, and he composes, entering the notes onscreen one at a time.

His father becomes his translator, using an ingenious grid pattern on clear plastic that enables Jason to spell out words with eye movements. It's all fascinating and heartbreaking and inspiring, despite an ill-advised fake out death scene.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet doesn't preach. Watching the determined young man and his support team in action says it all. What the disease does to Jason isn't pretty. What technology, dedicated professionals, and his family and friends do with him is beautiful.

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