History has forgotten Jason Becker—or at least, that’s what filmmaker Jesse Vile and his first feature-length documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, would lead us to believe. And he’s got a point. Back in the ‘80s, Becker was considered by some to be one of the best metal guitar players on the planet—this before he even graduated high school. His albums Speed Metal Symphony and Go Off!, made in collaboration with Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, raised his profile high enough to attract the attention of Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. Becker played lead guitar on Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough, but before he was to embark on the subsequent worldwide tour to support the album, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease moved quickly, and at the tender age of 20, Becker began to lose all use of his muscles as well as his ability to speak, thus ending his burgeoning stardom. He continues to write and record music, however, using an eye-communication system developed by his father, a truly remarkable feat that speaks to Becker’s unshakeable creativity and passion for music. Vile, who grew up a fan of Becker’s and discovered his music while learning to play guitar at age 15, tells this story with ardent admiration for his subject.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, though, suffers from Vile’s poor sense of pacing, specifically his misguided use of linear structure. The doc begins appropriately enough, with home-movie footage of a precocious young Becker tinkering with his father’s guitars, which eventually grows to sheer mastery, of course, as Becker was able to nail down the entire Clapton songbook before he was even 12 years old. Before long, the archival footage shows Becker as a young adult, shredding his guitar before small but adoring crowds. Then, inexplicably, Vile inserts a shot of Becker in the present day, wheelchair-bound with tracheal tube in place. While it certainly makes sense to depict Becker’s story chronologically, Vile has a difficult time parsing out information efficiently, so the film doesn’t seem to unfold organically, undercutting what’s an otherwise entertaining and occasionally captivating story.
The film’s requisite use of archival footage mixed with talking-head testimonials makes for a predictable, uninteresting formal design. The story, meanwhile, reaches its crescendo when Becker, his body ravaged by the disease, enters what’s known as “CO2 narcosis,” a sort of coma that’s symptomatic of complications from ALS. It’s usually the death knell for those who suffer from the disease (Vile inelegantly drives this point home via a pseudo avant-garde montage of images of a healthier Becker before fading to white), but Becker emerges from the ordeal stronger than ever. His story his quite extraordinary. Vile’s film, despite its best intentions, is merely a serviceable extension of his own fandom.