Pearl Jam is not a typical band, and “Pearl Jam Twenty” is not a typical rock documentary. Written and directed by Oscar winner Cameron Crowe (who is one of the film’s producers), “Pearl Jam Twenty” covers 20 years of Pearl Jam (the band’s first album, “Ten,” was released in 1991), but it does not have the usual tales of rock’n’roll debauchery and destruction that people expect from non-concert music documentaries. “Pearl Jam Twenty” also doesn’t have a lot of “talking heads” — music-industry types, journalists and other “experts” — weighing in with stories and opinions about the band. Instead, the movie is told almost entirely from the perspective of the current members of Pearl Jam: lead singer Eddie Vedder, guitarist Stone Gossard, bass player Jeff Ament, guitarist Mike McCready and drummer Matt Cameron. Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell, who was Vedder’s roommate in Pearl Jam’s earliest days and is still a good friend of the band, is one of the few people outside of Pearl Jam who is heard from in the film.
People looking for a documentary that digs up any scandalous dirt on Pearl Jam will not find it in this movie, since Pearl Jam’s personal lives are selectively covered in the film. McCready is the only one in the band to talk about his struggles with substance abuse. The band’s experiences with sex, groupies, love and marriage — which are a realistically part of any successful rock band that’s been around for 20 years — are completely left out of this story. The band’s family members and significant others are not interviewed in the movie. (And if they’re not interviewed, forget about ex-wives/ex-girlfriends and former Pearl Jam members being interviewed in the movie too.) But “Pearl Jam Twenty” does feature plenty of emotional moments when various band members talk about how they were affected by the deaths of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain and Andy Wood (lead singer of Mother Love Bone, the band that Gossard and Ament were in before Pearl Jam), as well as the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark, when nine fans were tragically killed during an audience surge while Pearl Jam performed.
“Pearl Jam Twenty” may not have much insight into the band’s personal lives, but what it does have is the first comprehensive visual music story of Pearl Jam, whose members have been notoriously cautious about giving the public access to what they’re like off stage. From being one of the few major acts to battle Ticketmaster to refusing to make music videos for most of their singles to allowing their fans to “bootleg” the band’s concerts, Pearl Jam has gotten plenty of praise and criticism for going against the norm, and “Pearl Jam Twenty” is a tribute to a band that has always stayed true to its ideals. “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, will have a limited release in movie theaters before being available through video on demand on September 24, followed by a premiere on PBS’s “American Masters” on October 21, and a DVD/Blu-ray release on October 25. (The film also has a companion book and soundtrack.) Here is what Crowe, Vedder, Gossard, Ament, Cameron and McCready said when they gathered for a press conference right after the movie’s premiere in Toronto.
To the band, was the Toronto premiere the first time you saw “Pearl Jam Twenty”?
Vedder: The very first time was at a place called the EMP, which wasn’t the cut we saw today, but we saw it with a lot of family and friends and locals. Cameron came up, and that was the first time I ever watched it. And then after that, we just watched the different edits and worked together — and it came through. Today was much different — to see it with a real audience, people who weren’t friends and family, I think that’s what gave us a sense of feeling like it was actually pretty damn good.
Cameron, how did you tackle 20 years of a band’s history in a two-hour movie?
Crowe: I was really inspired by “No Direction Home,” the [Martin] Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan. That’s a huge subject that spans a long time, and I just loved the way Scorsese — as a fan, as a musicologist and as a director — chose the chunk that he chose, examined the roots, and showed how the music was born.
I felt so satisfied and inspired that I wanted to listen to more Bob Dylan. It felt like a Bob Dylan experience. That was my guiding light, in making the movie. With the guys, if we could make a movie that lets you feel the way a Pearl Jam concert or record lets you feel, then we’re in good shape.
Pearl Jam has a different concert set list every night, so how do you guys feel about this film having a group of songs that are telling this story?
McCready: I feel like the songs were diverse enough to show what our set list is like every night. First of all, it sounded great. That’s what you want out of a concert, anyways. I felt like I’d just been through a concert a little bit, without sweating. Emotionally, certainly, I feel like it’s a ride that’s fantastic.
Pearl Jam is a band that has always basically let the music do the talking, and the movie makes it clear, for protective reasons, among other things. Stone and Jeff, since you were a part of Pearl Jam from the beginning, what did it take to get you to open up to Cameron Crowe to do a movie about the band?
Gossard: I just think that Cameron’s interest in doing it was the biggest inspiration. I don’t think we would have taken this thing on, had it not been all the pieces that fit together. It was about Cameron just being open to the task of looking through all this footage and seeing if there’s a story to be told, or what’s the right story to be told, or how it could make a great movie and represent the feeling that he has for the band.
Once we knew he was involved, then we just trusted that it was going to be OK. Without Kelly [Curtis, Pearl Jam’s manager] and Cameron having a vision for it, we probably wouldn’t have made it for another 20 years. It would have been awhile, probably.
Ament: We don’t get to hang out with Cameron that often, so it was an excuse to hang out with Cameron a little bit. He’s one of the great people to be in the corner of the room with and talk music and movies and art with. That was an added bonus to this whole process.
When Cameron Crowe showed up on the Seattle scene in the mid-‘80s, did you guys let him in right away?
Crowe: I met Stone and Jeff first. I was kind of researching the idea of doing a movie based in Seattle about people, some of whom were musicians. I met Stone and Jeff, and loved so much that Stone and Jeff were guys that had jobs and also played in bands.
It wasn’t like the L.A. experience where guys are like, “Yeah, I live with my girlfriend. She pays for everything. I play at night and sleep all day.” These guys were like, “We pull espresso, we do this, we do that. And then we earn the experience to pay for our love, which is playing music, buying instruments and doing it.”
So I met these guys and thought they were a great example of people who love music and chose to make music their purpose in life, really responsibly and passionately. Loving their music came from knowing and loving them as guys first.
Were there things that you saw in “Pearl Jam Twenty” that you had forgotten about?
Ament: Backstage at the Cult show, for sure. It’s one of the shots that opens the film. The first time I saw that, I was like, “Where did that come from?” Obviously, Josh [Taft] was shooting that footage, but I didn’t remember it. You have a memory of something in your head that’s probably drifted away from what really happened, as time goes on and you tell the stories. Because during that time, we took the guys from the Cult down to the Row. We remember Lars [Ulrich] showed up. I tell that story a lot. And then, all of a sudden, you get pulled back to really what it was like was pretty shocking. I didn’t know I wore hats like that.
Cameron: Stone and I were commenting that I wore pajama pants for one show, and I never wear pajama pants. That was a surprise. I only wear shorts.
Vedder: When you’re Matt Cameron, that’s about as bad as it can get.
When you were combing through all this footage, were there finds that were particularly great? Was there a Holy Grail you couldn’t find?
Crowe: No. The Holy Grail really was the piece of footage of Kurt Cobain and Eddie slow dancing at the [MTV] VMAs. That had been talked about. Some people didn’t quite remember it even happening. Other people swore there was somebody there with a camera.
So with the help of the people that had the footage and some people who really wanted to help us get everything, we did find that footage., And it’s so powerful. I was watching again. It’s just such a human moment. And it is what happens outside the glare of the spotlight.
They were really in a blender of media explosiveness at that time, and so here was this moment below the stage, while Eric Clapton was playing “Tears in Heaven,” where Kurt and Eddie got to be alone and express themselves as people. The fact that it was on film is amazing, and it’s so poignant.
We also had a million concerts that had been filmed, and I think the guys hadn’t put a lot of it out. Jeff says the movie kind of snuck up on them. We’d been working on for so it long.
At a certain point, we called and said, “Gee, we’d like to do some interviews, and do them in your house, so that they’re personal, and they feel like a conversation.” So, we started doing those interviews.
The guys really opened the door for us to look in all the nooks and crannies and see whatever we could find. That’s why we’re lucky enough to have so many different things from so many areas of their lives.
Eddie, what do you remember of that Kurt Cobain moment?
Vedder: Not that I remembered it, but I saw it today for the first time. The segment, maybe it was a little longer in the cut than what I had seen before. The second the camera gets blurry and someone walks in front, and then you see Kurt look over and go like this [he makes a “be quiet” gesture by putting an index finger to his lips].
It wasn’t saying, “Don’t tell anybody,” or “Keep a lid on this little private moment.” It actually was because, on the stage above us, Eric Clapton was playing “Tears in Heaven,” which is a pretty quiet song. And we were jumping up and down and clapping and all that. The first time I saw that footage, it was incredibly emotional, I think just because he’s smiling. You think, “If he just could have pulled through.” That’s the thing about today. Maybe it’s good that this movie happened now.
We’ve been in a grateful mode and an appreciation mode of each other for quite some time. The last few years, I think, have been a real graceful period for us. But, it really is a galvanizing moment to look at each other. It doesn’t happen that often. You look at the crowd reaction, or the family that is the people that come to see the shows, and it’s just music. It’s just guitars and drums and bass.
To have it turn into this other thing, this kind of monument, in a way — I don’t mean to self-aggrandize — but it’s really something to see and witness it and, in this case, be reminded of it, having it right there in front of it, so that we can appreciate it even more — and know that we have a really strong base to go for the next 20 [years].
Wasn’t your goal always to get beyond it just being music and push it somewhere else?
Vedder: That’s like catching a butterfly. You can’t grab it too hard. It’s really a delicate thing. These are five men who used to be teenagers or in their 20s. If you’ve ever tried to order a pizza with five people, it’s difficult.
So to have gone to this other level of being able to create records and songs that are different than the last songs that you’ve written, and put on shows, and have each one be different … One thing we’re very fortunate with is that, without having known each other and just having come together in this quick moment, to have all these people there and into long relationships, it’s a very lucky thing.
Then you get to higher planes of communication. Every time you accomplish another thing, there’s another planem and you’re elevated again. It keeps going up. It doesn’t stay this way, or go down. It just keeps going up. That’s the long relationship thing.
How did the last 10 years happen and how did you survive?
McCready: With a lot of careful effort and talking to each other, and hopefully having as clear lines of communication and open lines of communication between each other as possible. That’s still an effort, but I think we take the time to want to find solutions for the stuff that goes on in our bands, if there are issues and problems and things.
I know we love each other. And I know I love playing music with these guys. There’s love and there’s understanding and there’s commitment, in all of those kinds of things that have helped us. And there’s a lot of luck too, probably, and some timing.
Cameron, where does “Pearl Jam Twenty” fit into your career?
Crowe: I’ve always just wanted to be lucky enough to tell a good story, and I always felt the story of Pearl Jam is a great story. It’s beyond just a rock story.
In fact, it takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head. The usual rock story is incredible promise, brilliance maybe, and then tragedy cuts it short. And aren’t we sad that we’ve lost this wonderful opportunity?
Pearl Jam is exactly the opposite. It’s a tragedy that was surmounted, and these guys found joy through survival and from studying what had happened before in rock, with some of their heroes. In some ways, it was a hard story to tell because it’s a happy ending, and it’s not even an ending. But, what it is, is unique.
All these guys, I think you can tell, approached their interviews open-heartedly. They wanted to just put everything out on the table. Even Jeff said, early on, “I hope there’s a little bit of group therapy that happens here, so I can learn a little bit about my band.” Every one of these guys just poured his heart out. All of us wanted to tell the story of how the music came to mean so much, today and tomorrow. And so I’m just lucky enough that I had the opportunity to help tell the story.
Jeff, was there group therapy in there? Did you learn about your band?
Ament: Listening to what Mike said earlier, about how we’ve been able to get through things by talking, I realized that really that first five or six years, there wasn’t a lot of talking. A lot of times, we would just put our heads down and get to the next place, and look at one another. We were just holding on.
I don’t remember a whole lot of conversations about what we were going through, at the time, because we didn’t know what we were going through. That’s the beauty of watching this movie and trying to make sense, a little bit, of that first five to 10 years. But I haven’t seen all the interview stuff.
That was the thing that I got excited about, when Cameron said, “I want to interview you guys.” I was just curious, good and bad, to hear Stone say, “I didn’t want to be in a band anymore.” That’s all good because, when that was all going down, we were talking to one another.
We’d take a bike ride every day, after Andy [Wood] died, and we’d hang out for two or three hours, but we wouldn’t really talk about anything. I would prod and say, “I heard you’re playing some music,” and he’d be like, “Yep.” So it’s been great to see a little bit of just how we feel about one another. I think we occasionally tell each other, but we’re guys.
Crowe: They had to pry this movie out of my hands. This could have easily been Pearl Jam 22 or 23. Watching the movie at the [Toronto premiere] I thought, “Damn, I had a great opportunity to ask Eddie a question, and I blew it.”
So ask him now.
Crowe: OK. When you’re on the plane, coming up from San Diego to Seattle, for the first time [to meet the other guys in Pearl Jam], what were you thinking? Were you thinking that it could go either way, or did you know in your heart that it was going to work?
Vedder: I was thinking, “Oh, my god, I’m on a plane! I offered to drive. Who are these guys that can afford a plane ticket?” That’s what I was thinking.
And then, I probably thought, “Don’t f*ck this up!” I took a razor blade, back when you could bring razor blades on planes, because I would do collages, and I did some crazy collage. I was just excited to play music.
I’d been in a few different groups with some people. The nature of being in bands, you try to write stuff, or you play some covers, and you do whatever stylistically, but it never felt like anything real. It never felt like anything that wasn’t highly derivative of something else.
When I heard the music that I got through [drummer] Jack Irons, which was the instrumental demo stuff that Matt Cameron had played on, I just heard something that I had never heard before. To be able to be part of that, and really not knowing what would happen, I thought that I would have a week in Seattle. It was like an art project, just like the razor-blade collages.
At this point in your career, how do you see yourselves 10 years from now?
Vedder: I think the same thing, just better. I think we’ll just keep getting better, and maybe just try to push the boundaries, musically. I don’t see stopping. I don’t think any of us see stopping.
I think everyone is doing things outside of the group too, which I think is really healthy. So by the time we get back, we’re excited to be back. Some groups will have a record, and then they’ll tour for two-and-a-half years. And then they’ll need to take two years off because they don’t want to see each other, or they’re just so wrecked and exhausted.
Whatever way we’re doing it, it’s still reaching out in the dark, but it seems to be working. It’s not like you have a formula, but you’ve got something that you know. We just want to stay healthy. We have families. We want to be dependable, to not only each other, but the audience.
Do you see yourselves as being the elder statesmen to younger musicians?
Vedder: If you’re talking about a young, young, young group. That was a huge thing, when we didn’t how to get through — like Jeff was saying, it was hard for us to talk to each other. Some of the people who broke open those conversations gave us advice on things that you can’t teach or you can’t take a class. It’s really them talking outside of the interviews, outside of the things that are available to people.
Like, Tom Petty for Mike [McCready] or Neil [Young] or Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] from Sonic Youth or Pete [Townshend] and Roger [Daltrey] for me. All of these groups, for some reason, we’re grateful that they kind of saw in us something that they recognized and they thought, “These guys might need a little help — and they’re worth helping.” So we’ve always been grateful.
Has all of this looking back galvanized you to move forward as well?
Ament: Yeah. Being in the middle of this a few months ago, we only had a little bit of time off, like maybe a few weeks. And we carved out half that time to go into the studio and record some new songs. And that sort of got us through all this looking back. It sort of reminded us of the job at hand and where we were headed. The funnest thing, at this point: getting in a room with these guys and make music. It’s just the greatest. I’m so curious about what everybody’s going to come in with and where it’s going to go.
Cameron, did you ever have any “Almost Famous” moments, where being a friend of the band got in the way of making a dramatic movie? Did you have to censor a lot of personal stuff?
Crowe: That’s a good question. What I wanted to do is use the fact that I did know them, and had known them for awhile, to do interviews that felt like actual conversations, as opposed to interviews. So I think knowing them and having lived in the community with them, for long periods of time, I think I was able to hold a mirror up and show them how they looked to me, as somebody that had been able to watch them over a period of time.
So I appreciate [them] trusting me enough to go through all the footage and hold this mirror up. It’s different, in this case, because I wanted to get across the feeling of what it would be like to be inside the band, as opposed to outside the band, looking in. So I think it was a plus.
Are “Almost Famous” and “Pearl Jam Twenty” like movie cousins?
Crowe: I think they are, actually. “Almost Famous” is about loving music and being a fan. And I think “Pearl Jam Twenty” is what it’s like to be a fan in the band, from their point of view, looking out at the William Millers of the world. “Almost Famous” is the other side of that.
McCready: [She says jokingly] And I played leads on both of them.
Crowe: That is true!
Cameron, did using the band in your 1992 film “Singles” and the drunken behavior that happened at the promotional party change the relationship between you and the band?
Crowe: Mercifully, no. I was always so embarrassed about the “Singles” party, I have to say. The fact that I had to ask, really beg, and say, “Please come and play this show because they won’t put out my movie unless you play this show.” I came out to Lollapalooza, and the guys had already heard that I was going to come beg them.
Vedder: He didn’t know how embarrassing it was going to get.
Crowe: In a world where I feel I can talk with these guys about anything, that thing we never brought up that thing for 20 years to each other. So, when we interviewed the guys, I brought it up with cameras. There’s a moment where Eddie looks at me like, “Oh, great, now we talk about the ‘Singles’ party, with a camera here.” It was cathartic for me, I have to say, to get through it.
Gossard: I think we owe you an apology. The fact that this was your moment, lesser people would have just said, “You guys are assholes! This is my chance. Can you lay off the tequila for another hour, before you go out there? Just say a couple of nice things and play a show, samn it!”
Crowe: I love that we’re now actually really talking about it. The original idea was an acoustic set. They were like, “Oh, we’re going to play an acoustic set. It’s going to be kind of like ‘Unplugged.’” And, I remember that Stone came up to me, at a certain point. Stone had already seen the avalanche that was starting to happen, and Stone was like, “I think we’re going to do a punk rock set.” And then, it went from there. But I’ve got to say that nobody died.
Vedder: It goes great in the film.
Crowe: It looks great. I leaned over to Kelly [Curtis] when we were watching the movie [at the Toronto premiere], and I was like, “Twenty years later, yes, it all worked out.” But at the time, it was a quandary. I didn’t want to be one of the guys, after the band had started to explode, coming to ask for something. But I love the way that Stone talks about it in the movie, where he says, “This hideous event actually was the birth of ‘no.’” So, we gave it a context.
Eddie, you’ve been known for being a reluctant rock star. How do you feel about fame now?
Vedder: You’ve got to understand, it was different then. I don’t know how people do it, these days. I don’t know how the young people or the people who have all that media attention deal with it. The media is way more intense, and there is all that social bullsh*t. I don’t even know how they deal with it. Paparazzi and that kind of thing is something that I can’t even f*cking imagine, for a second.
What we had, at the time, was too much for me, as a human. Even as a writer, to not be able to walk into a situation and observe because you were being observed? Twenty years later, I’m not still moaning about it. It’s just that you asked.
We just had to figure out ways. If you’re on the music channel and you’re in people’s living rooms, and all that, many times a day back then, then we had to take responsibility for that. It was more just manicuring it at a level that you could deal with. It’s all pretty positive.
But then, there are photos of that car crash [from a fan who rammed into Vedder’s house with her car] with the woman inside the car, bloody. It was an incredibly serious deal. That was the day of the Grammy Awards. That’s where my life was at that time.
I was thinking, “OK, what the f*ck is going on here, and how are we going to survive this? Where is it going to go next?” Now I’m really proud that we all have lives that we can live, and be who we want to be as parents and as community members. It’s all at a very maintainable level.
We’re very grateful to the people that have listened to us over the years. They seem to have a certain respect for that, and allow us that as well. It’s a relationship. We couldn’t do it without them and without their understanding, and we’re very appreciative.
For more info: “Pearl Jam Twenty” website
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