In celebration of the band's twentieth anniversary friend and filmmaker Cameron Crowe has created a festive, invigorating and highly affecting love letter to them entitled Pearl Jam Twenty. Make no mistake, this was done as a partnership between him and the band, however, it also houses several thorny moments in their career that other acts would choose to gloss over or refuse to even acknowledge exist. This is precisely why Pearl Jam Twenty is more than a run of the mill music documentary. It doesn't merely tell you an A-Z story or even cover the writing and recording of every album, but it explores the band's soul and how they managed to make it through two decades of inconceivable triumph and equally extreme trauma.
The film opens with the history of Mother Love Bone, the band whose existence predates Pearl Jam. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard formed the band with singer Andy Wood. The charismatic and flamboyant front man was a star and sadly one who became a victim of his own demons and a heroin addiction which took his life shortly before he release of their debut album. Gossard and Ament retreated but came together a few months later with guitarist Mike McCready. They recorded instrumental demos in the search for a singer. The tape landed in the hands of a San Diego singer and surfer Eddie Vedder who proceeded to record his own lyrics over their music. From there on out, history was made. Some have been critical that Crowe skimmed over huge portions of Pearl Jam's story and while he most likely did this to capture as much as he could in a 2-our film, I am happy to say many of the stories are gone into greater depth in the companion book (which will be reviewed here in the next week). The first half of the film covers the band's beginnings and their unprecedented ascent to stardom, something they may have secretly wanted but were wholly unprepared for.
Something never discussed is the almost serendipitous nature of Vedder and the other members finding each other. When Vedder joined the band, he did so as a shy kid who let himself go through the music, but something happened and there was a video camera to capture it for us. The turning point is captured in January 111, 1991 in Vancouver during the song "Breath". Security was being overly aggressive with the fans in the audience and in that moment you see the solid lead singer break out of his shell bring out an intensity for which he would be defined throughout all of the 1990's. He went from being a shy kid to the voice of his generation in this one moment and the footage is startling. What makes Pearl Jam Twenty so engrossing is this vintage footage. There are current day interviews which act as a counterpoint to this footage, but much of the story is told through these mostly home video (and professional) recordings. There's footage of them writing "Daughter" on a tour bus from May 1992, video from club gigs in 1991 and 1992, Lollapalooza, rehearsals, Vedder's second show with the band and even rare Temple of the Dog footage. The fact that these video recordings exist doesn't make the film a grand slam, but it's how Crowe carefully weaved and edited the film in such a fashion that it puts the viewer in the thick of it all making them feel the highs and lows. The film's most potent performance is a series of shows edited together featuring "Porch" from 1991 and 1992 where Vedder would hang himself from the lighting rigs at festivals and clubs. If that wasn't enough, he would let go and have the audience catch him. Moments like these can't be recaptured or reconstructed and the extensive overhaul of all this video recordings is used masterfully throughout Pearl Jam Twenty.
Crowe met with each of the five current members of Pearl Jam for a wide-ranging set of interviews. No managers, producers or other outside people were interviewed honing the film's focus in on the band. The sole exception for the current interviews was given to Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. Cornell wrote the Temple of the Dog record and was Andy Wood's roommate. His interviews are integral to the film because he's the one outsider who truly puts their history into perspective. None of the former drummers are talked to although McCready gives a short but tongue-in-cheek history of their Spinal Tap luck with the men behind the kit.
Watching Pearl Jam Twenty is a deeply psychologically gut wrenching experience. Crowe brilliantly tells their tale through a momentous amount of new interviews with the current five members, Chris Cornell and a slew of vintage footage which really heightens the emotional punch of the film. Stone Gossard who has taken a back seat to a lot of Pearl Jam's press provides the most surprising sound bytes. I find him secluded yet enlivening all at the same time. He appears more comfortable with Crowe than he does even with a six-string around his neck. There's a particularly funny moment when he takes Crowe to his basement and his finds his Grammy buried in the back of a room out of sight from everyone. Vedder's interviews are almost reserved which stand in direct contrast to the overwhelming passion in the early footage. However when they dig into the Roskilde tragedy in 2000 (where nine fans were crushed at one of their concerts) Vedder doesn't need to say anything, his eyes tell us everything. Above all else, the current day interviews find these five men at peace with not just their past but who they are today. They've aged but they have also matured. Their personal lives go largely untouched, which is the way it should be. Crowe was out to make more than a documentary but a larger piece of art like a painting where there's a focal point in the center of it with different shades and hues around the corners and sides.
What differentiates Pearl Jam Twenty from other rock documentaries is that is delves into their controversies head-on. The Ticketmaster debacle is covered, Vedder's off centered comments at the 1996 Grammy ceremony are shown and then there's the MTV Singles party from 1992. The band didn't want to do it this show but did it as a favor to Crowe where the movie studio told him they would only release Singles if Pearl Jam agreed to perform a MTV concert for the premiere. It was their only day off that particular week and as a result, they were inebriated when show time came around. This experience proved to be a lesson they would learn from in the future, sometimes it's good to say no to things. It wasn't that they didn't want success but they so desperately wanted it on their terms and not anyone else's.
No music documentary is worth anything if you forget about the music and in Pearl Jam Twenty Crowe does a breathtaking job of telling their story but weaving the music into it as well. Most rock documentaries these days choose one path or the other and very rarely find success in both but Crowe knows film and music as well as anyone. He is able to capture the essence of the music and have it provide the touching thwack it always have and always will. There's a particularly moving sequence about the song "Release" whose lyrics Vedder came up with as a conversation with his dead father. There's behind the scenes footage from the "Jeremy" video shoot and the lost gem "Thumbing My Way" serves as a soundtrack to the friendships in the band (notably Ament and Vedder's relationship) is shown beautifully. The effortless acoustic number is somber yet showcases what Pearl Jam was doing so well during the years they hibernated outside of the mainstream. They may not have created stadium anthems but they till created more intimate songs that their legions of fans wrapped around themselves. Then towards the end, there's a scene from Madison Square Garden where Vedder plays the opening riff to "Better Man" and allows the crowd to take it away. Moments like these remind one of the healing power of music and how this band better defines the light and darkness within us than just about any act from the last twenty years. To those who never understood Pearl Jam, Cameron Crowe has taken everything great about the band and brought it to the viewer from rare demos, to interviews to enlivening live performances that will send you back to the music. Pearl Jam Twenty is a sprawling document of the band, their music and was made for the fans by a fan.
These songs meant the world to a whole generation of music fans twenty years ago and now they mean even more. As you see Pearl Jam perform "Alive" from a recent show it reminds us of the intoxicating strength music has and its ability to heal us in ways no modern medicine ever could. Their anger, aggression, passion, talent, longevity and commitment to their art are perfectly encapsulated in this one performance. Towards the end of the live performance, Eddie Vedder raises his hand and changes a tiny lyric as he sings "We're all still alive"! It's a poignant reminder to not just Pearl Jam, but us, the listeners, have survived as well.
Pearl Jam Twenty will air on PBS on Friday October 21st as part of its American Masters program and will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 24th.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
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