Dir/scr: Cameron Crowe. US. 2011. 120mins
Leave it to former rock-scribe Cameron Crowe to make a documentary about and with one his favorite bands, Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam Twenty is a fan’s appreciation, celebrating the band’s twenty-year anniversary.
The film will be released on September 20 worldwide, simultaneously with video on demand (on September 24), the publication of a book on the band and the release of a new recording. If Pearl Jam’s existing fans flock to the film, it will make mon.ey, and the band’s fans are nothing if not fiercely loyal. Bear in mind that this group sells out arenas.
Crowe’s voice-over announces that he’s a fan, yet his film doesn’t gush. You get the sense that he spent his energy editing down a near-infinity footage and sound from a vast range of sources. Since at least the 1980s part of the Seattle scene has been self-documentation. Pearl Jam Twenty is a daunting editing distillation, with only a few false notes in a two-hour movie.
More animated than Crowe’s doc earlier this year, The Union, which observed recording sessions with Elton John and Leon Russell, Pearl Jam Twenty is also a lot less elegiac, even though Crowe has logged plenty of time with the band, which appeared as Mookie Blaylock in his 1992 grunge-feature, Singles. These are spry and boyish guys, after 20 years. Eddie Vedder is reflective. Co-founder Stone Gossard is wryly comical, as is cynical lead guitarist Mike McCready.
For much of the audience, their journey will be through familiar territory into mass culture stardom and angst about sacrificing musical credibility in the process. Still, the band’s pre-history in Seattle’s indie-rock incubator may be a revelation to the group’s younger fans.
As everywhere in Pearl Jam Twenty, there are miles of footage from this early era - none of it more striking that that of Mother Love Bone, a band started by Gossard and Jeff Ament in 1998. Their singer was Andrew Wood, a wildly flamboyant free spirit of an entertainer with a fashion flair for what might be called Glam/pre-Goth, and an appetite for drugs. Wood overdosed in 1990, taking several horrific days to die - just as their first album was scheduled for release.
Gossard tells Crowe that pictures of a dying Wood (immortalised in the 1996 grunge-doc Hype!) should be shown to anyone tempted by hard drugs.
That death seems to have dissuaded most of the band from falling deeply into substance abuse, although they say alcohol fueled them in the early days. Wood’s passing brought Eddie Vedder into the picture, and Pearl Jam was formed and named.
Self-destructiveness wasn’t just chemical for the band. Crowe devotes one section of the doc to Vedder’s Spiderman-ish scaling of poles, pillars and scaffolds during concerts, an obsession that could have made him a casualty many times over. The crowds loved it. No surprise, there is plenty of footage. The era’ s other Seattle casualty was Kurt Cobain, whose caustic views on the band’s success made him a loud public enemy. Crowe shows us that Cobain’s animus cooled over time into respect, if not friendship
Two hours may seem like a long time to spend with Pearl Jam, but not for its fans, whose numbers are shown multiplying into arenas full of sing-along worshippers. In footage of a performance of the song Better Man in New York, Vedder lets a crowd that knows all the words do all the singing.
Pearl Jam devotees may be more concerned with what the film leaves out - almost all personal and family information - although the group’s longstanding aversion to the cult-of-personality mechanics of commercial music promotion should have prepared its public for a certain degree of privacy. The downside of drawing such a solid line around the band members’ private lives is that we never learn what they do besides play music. The most ardent Pearl Jam head-bangers will have ways to find out.
Production companies: Vinyl Films, Monkeywrench Inc., Tremolo Productions
International sales: Arts Alliance Media
Producers: Kelly Curtis, Cameron Crowe, Morgan Neville, Andy Fischer
Executive Producer: Michele Anthony
Cinematography: Nicola B. Marsh
Editors: Chris Perkel, Kevin Klauber
Main cast: Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder