SPECIAL NOTE: It’s probably true now for the film “Pearl Jam Twenty” to not fit in the Classic Cinema repertoire just yet. Hopefully though, the following review will demonstrate just how Cameron Crowe’s film about the Seattle rockers could become a classic in the genre of rock documentaries. You can judge for yourself…
The events and experiences Pearl Jam went through in their two-decade history may have destroyed lesser-known or lesser-strong bands. And some of the greatest bands in music history didn’t last long – The Beatles (nearly a decade) and The Clash (6 years in its classic lineup) are defining examples of that. Yet the Seattle-based rockers have survived and thrived in the roller-coaster that is rock-and-roll fame.
To mark the band’s 20th anniversary, Oscar-winning writer-director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire) took his love of rock music and channeled it through the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. The two-hour film looks at the band’s evolution, its rise to instant fame, its struggles to maintain that success, and the hurdles that could have broken them up. The film even begins with the story of what possibly could have been the biggest hurdle: the fact that Pearl Jam almost didn’t happen – until a tragic twist of fate stepped in.
In late 1980s Seattle, Mother Love Bone was starting to make waves – among its members were Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (guitar). Along with the group’s popular lead singer Andrew Wood, Ament and Gossard seemed like they were headed for a taste of rock fame. Then Wood died of a drug overdose in 1990, and with his death, Mother Love Bone was ultimately done. Ament and Gossard would separate only to re-connect, then they were joined by fellow guitarist Mike McCready for a demo recording. That demo would land in the hands of Eddie Vedder, who would become the new band’s lead singer. Then came the 1991 album Ten, and Pearl Jam was off.
Crowe uses loads of archival footage to tell the Pearl Jam story, though new interviews by the band members certainly add to the insight the film needs. One big use of archive footage features the band in only their second show from around Christmas 1990, just as the material for Ten was starting to take shape. Other major points the film hits along the way include the band’s relationship with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (a hate-to-love respect), its battle with Ticketmaster over profits, its political leanings (with one notable performance of the song “Bushleaguer” getting the band booed at a concert), and a concert tragedy in Denmark that made the band look closely at where they were headed – and how they could keep going, if they could. Somehow they continue recording and touring today on their own terms, with their most recent release being 2009’s Backspacer.
No one has to be a Pearl Jam fan to experience the diligence and earned joy of Pearl Jam Twenty – it’s a spirited film about a band who found overnight fame, nearly lost it all, and dared to go its own way to the respect of thousands of fans worldwide. Anyone expecting a back-slapping, “all was peachy” type of rock film will be sorely out of luck – and this is a band that may not have wanted such a film anyhow. It’s a warts-and-all movie with plenty of highs and lows that lead up to an ultimately satisfying nostalgia trip.