With its fond memories of flannel shirts, mosh pits and the Pacific Northwest, Pearl Jam Twenty is being called a documentary for the fans.
Yet as the film hits various Canadian cities for special one-day-only screenings Tuesday (in advance of a DVD release), let’s set the record straight: Even those more neutral about Pearl Jam will find it impossible not to enjoy director Cameron Crowe’s driving retrospective of the band’s stage-diving 20 years, at least on some level. The story of a band coming in from the rain to arena-sized fame is pleasant, the band members are amiable and the uniformly incredible sound is truly the star of the show.
So what makes this particularly “for the fans?” First off, there’s a minimum of grandiose summations about Seattle’s grunge-rock scene, the kind of commentary no fan needs to hear (such as the Spin magazine quote about Pearl Jam, once “synthetic grunge,” now being “organic”). No one needs yet more revisionism about how grunge defined the nineties, or how Nirvana (Pearl Jam’s sometimes rival, sometimes co-conspirator) supposedly brought punk to the masses.
The documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, like its accompanying coffee-table book, tries instead to see the band from the inside, through archival clips and clear-eyed interviews with the now older and more mature musicians.
That’s not to say there isn’t a little bias at play here. Pearl Jam was born from various Seattle groups and, in the case of front man Eddie Vedder, some time playing music in San Diego. But it was the partnership of guitarist Stone Gossard (one of the great rock ’n’ roll names) and bassist Jeff Ament that led to the grunge prototype Green River and then to the hair rock (but not hair metal!) of Mother Love Bone.
When the latter group’s charismatic singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990, a new band was created from the wreckage, Pearl Jam. The film details all of this with starry-eyed precision, stringing one remarkable archival clip after another. (Pearl Jam has been extensively filmed on its tours.)
Crowe did have certain blinkers on when compiling the footage. While hinting about how Pearl Jam’s members incorporated a wide array of influences into their music, the film doesn’t admit that grunge was a throwback. The nineties began just as one of the most miraculous three or fours years of music was ending, after the birth of politically conscious hip hop, the emergence of groundbreaking house and techno, and the making of David Byrne’s hugely influential Brazilian compilation albums as well. Guitar rock was out; and grunge marked its return. Grunge types from Seattle (to inject my own bias as a kid from Vancouver) looked to some like retrogressive headbangers.
Being “for the fans,” the film portrays the Pearl Jam of the nineties as simply the future of music. That’s fine. All of those distinctions of 20 years ago, between what music you listened to, what subculture you identified with, what clothes you wore, matter little now. And Pearl Jam Twenty doesn’t want to get into comparisons; it just wants to tell its story of a band struggling first to deal with its immediate fame, through the mid-career battle over apparent price gouging by Ticketmaster, to the new sense of ease as the band ages.
For all of Pearl Jam’s descent at times into folksy balladry, Vedder was a devoted follower of the Who and the band has a deeply punk sensibility. In the band’s earlier days, this manifested in infantile wrestling matches onstage, and Vedder’s quite literally defying death by climbing up into the rafters above the stage and leaping into the audience.
Then, as now, Vedder had a serenely messianic air about it all. He genuinely seems above the base concerns of the everyday. And for a band that tries hard to say what it believes to be true, he’s the one often doing the speaking. It’s clear Pearl Jam wouldn’t be celebrating 20 years of fame without his showmanship, as fans are already well aware.
With its intimacy and (this can’t be emphasized enough) fantastic sound, Pearl Jam Twenty is like two hours spent rediscovering the band through excellent headphones. It may not convert non-fans, but it’s not trying to.
Pearl Jam Twenty
- Directed by Cameron Crowe
- Classification: 14A
Pearl Jam Twenty is being shown for one day only in screenings at theatres Tuesday. See local listings and http://www.pj20.com/screenings for information. (The website’s mention of a limited, one-week screening of the film doesn’t apply to Canada.)