Rock documentaries can be a bit of a tightrope act for filmmakers. On one side of the line are the diehard fans, the ones who have followed the band for years and obsessively researched every last detail about their favorite musicians. On the other are the casual fans and general audiences that may barely know the subject at all. It can be hard to cater to both sides, and often directors have to choose who they want to favor: do they take the time for extra exposition so as not to leave the average Joe behind at the risk of boring the fanatics? Or do you assume a certain level of understanding of the subject and possibly alienate the uninitiated?
While Cameron Crowe tries his best to straddle that fine line on Pearl Jam Twenty, ultimately the film ends up being a movie for fans first and foremost. That’s not to say it isn’t an enjoyable film for the casual Pearl Jam listener, but for those whose familiarity with the band ended before No Code, the film is less of a “must see” affair. Crowe is an unabashed fan of the band and the end result is more of a love letter than an unbiased look at Pearl Jam’s rise, which may come across as a bit too “self-congratulatory” for some.
But don’t get me wrong: as a big fan of Pearl Jam, for me the film was absolutely a success. The quintent of Vedder, Gossard, McCready, Ament, and Cameron have been a notoriously enigmatic band over the past two decades, refusing to do music videos after “Jeremy” became too big for them, rarely granting interviews, and often railing against the status quo in the music industry (most notably Ticketmaster and the Grammys). So to see Crowe (whom the band is obviously comfortable around) coax out personal stories and reflections from the band members is something of a small miracle. Not since Single Video Theory has Pearl Jam been so accessible to the fans on such a human level.
The movie starts off with a look at Mother Love Bone, whose ashes provided the basis for the rise of Pearl Jam, and spends most of it duration focused on the years leading up through the infamous Ticketmaster battles that the band spearheaded. While Vedder fans may balk at the lack of the frontman in the early MLB scenes, understanding that band (and more importantly Andrew Wood’s overdose death) is absolutely integral to understanding the mindset of Pearl Jam, and especially how they were able to avoid (mostly) the substance abuse problems that have plagued so many other rock super bands. Wood is lovingly treated in these early scenes, portrayed as a genial, enthusiastic frontman whose passion for entertainment was matched only by his penchant for drugs, and you can see the lasting pain his passing left on the band members.
Unsurprisingly, Vedder, as the band’s biggest and most recognizable personality, takes center stage for much of the following film, though for those who only remember his wilder post-Ten, pre-Vitalogy days in which he was the guy climbing light fixtures and leaping into crowds (a habit that is humorously recalled with some distaste by his fellow band members), it may be surprising to learn that at first he was a shy, quiet, and vulnerable young security guard from San Diego. He was so introverted, in fact, that Chris Cornell (who provides one of the few non-PJ voices in the film) had doubts as to whether Vedder could even sing when he first arrived in Seattle (as we all soon found out, he could indeed). The mystery of Vedder doesn’t get too much light shed on it unfortunately (of all the band members, he still seems one of the most guarded), though when he opens up about family issues and the Roskilde tragedy (where nine were trampled to death in a stampede during a PJ set), you do get a short glimpse at a more vulnerable Vedder.
While the movie does a fine job hitting the major beats of the Pearl Jam story, for me the most memorable parts were the short personal moments between Crowe and the rest of the band. My favorite scene of the film features guitarist Stone Gossard searching his house for Pearl Jam-related memorabilia (of which there is precious little, a testament to the band’s hesitance to embrace fame entirely). Gossard manages to find a souvenir coffee cup from a Mexico tour (with dirty coffee grounds still inside), a box full of unopened concert DVDs, and, oh yeah, a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance wasting away in a dusty corner of his basement. In another scene, bassist Jeff Ament returns to his home town, and talks about learning bass by playing along to Ramones records in his room. Ultimately, it’s these small moments that offer us the best glimpse at Pearl Jam, and their unassuming, down-to-earth mentalities despite having sold over 60 million records worldwide. This battle to remain “normal” in the face of surmounting fame (wonderfully depicted in a short montage of clips in which the band’s name appears everywhere from nightly news to Jeopardy!) is one of the major story arcs of the film and certainly the most realized.
There were parts of the film that left me wanting more, however. Despite being a retrospective of the past twenty years, precious little time is spent on anything that’s happened to the band post-Yield other than a brief look at their political activism (mostly the track “Bu$hleaguer”) and the events at Roskilde. Sure, Pearl Jam has been less relevant in the 2000’s, but they’ve still made some great music and managed to keep afloat in a harsh business, and that deserves some sort of mention. The film also feels light on emotion at times. While Wood’s death is earnestly felt, the Roskilde tragedy feels slightly glossed over (save a haunting shot of a tearful Vedder on his knees as he helplessly watches the stampede), and other issues like guitarist Mike McCready’s substance abus problems, the rotating door of drummers leading up to Matt Cameron, and some of the bands inter-personal conflicts are almost entirely ignored. In a way it’s nice, as it avoids the VH1 Behind the Music cliches of band strife, but to some these oversights may seem a bit disingenuous. Lastly, for those with little prior context, some of the bits can seem downright baffling. In particular, keyboardist Boom Gaspar is never once introduced though he plays a key part in the film’s final musical performance.
But that’s really critiquing the film for what it’s not, when what it is is a wonderful look at how a group of five guys who, according to Crowe, “spent way too much time indoors” were able to rise to world fame, then hold on and remain relevant and artistically intact through two decades of adversity. Crowe captures this perfectly by bookending the film with two performances of the band’s megahit “Alive”, one in 1991 and one in 2010. The former finds the band sacrificing precision and skill for outright bombast in typical grunge fashion, the guitars screeching through over-driven amplifiers (not always in key), while a clearly nervous Vedder stares down at the ground, gripping the microphone stand as if it were a life-preserver. Fast forward twenty years, and the band’s musicianship is now impeccable and Vedder is animated and open, moving across the stage freely and engaging with the crowd as if he were performing for 40,000 of his closest fans. Those two juxtaposed performances tell the film’s whole story: Pearl Jam has been forced to evolve since their early success, and in doing so have earned their place (love them or not) as one of rock’s premier acts.
For diehard fans, Pearl Jam Twenty is a vindication of two decades of loyalty, a reminder of all that we love about their music, their mentality, their work ethic, and their personas. For those not so sold on the band, the film may seem to delve a bit too far into fan-service towards its final moments, but it does undoubtedly endear the band to the audience. My companion for the screening, by her own admission not a fan of the band, still left the movie saying she had a little more respect for their work after the credits rolled. And that in the end may be the greatest praise the film can hope to earn.
Final Grade: A- (for fans)/B (for non-fans)
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