Cameron Crowe's film Pearl Jam: Twenty; a polite, potent look at rock's most reluctant superstars
You quickly get the sense, watching the fortysomething members of Pearl Jam bounce off each other in Oscar-winner Cameron Crowe’s intimate documentary on the band’s life, Pearl Jam: Twenty, that no one is more surprised this group still exists than the bandmembers themselves.
Perhaps it’s because, for too long, Pearl Jam was always the nerdier, more pop-oriented sibling among the Seattle-bred grunge rock trinity who redefined rock music in the 1990s.
Nirvana was the rock ‘n’ roll dream; massively creative, a seemingly effortless embodiment of a worldwide youth culture made heroic martyrs after frontman Kurt Cobain shot and killed himself at his Seattle home in 1994. Soundgarden were the freaky, aggressive rockers; dudes as likely to beat you up and steal your car as party with you.
But, in the wake of aggressively anti-fame frontman Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam was always painfully aware of its popular status and impact. Where Nirvana tossed pop culture hand grenades without a care, Vedder was so self-conscious about their success it hurt; turning his back on music videos, firing a bandmember for digging the stardom too much and picking a years-long fight with TicketMaster.
But somehow, improbably, Pearl Jam was the band left standing after all the overdoses, suicides, ego-driven flameouts and inevitable passing of the pop music torch. And, like all children of Generation X, eventually they had to get over the angst of their earlier days and embrace the success life handed them – basically, the story of Twenty.
There’s cheap shots here. 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney is shown sneering at the grunge nation after Cobain’s death, noting that these angst-ridden kids never faced a World War, never faced a draft and never faced a Vietnam. Crowe presents him as a cartoonish vision of everything Pearl Jam’s fans stood against.
But Rooney had a point, evidence by the band’s own acceptance of its elder-rocker status now. Mired in a recession which feels like a depression and two wars overseas, it’s hard to remember why these guys were so bummed out back then about selling millions of records and playing to stadiums packed with adoring fans.
Twenty glosses over the result of Pearl Jam’s legendary fight with TicketMaster, which brought no lasting changes to the high price of concert tickets or curbed that massive corporation’s power in the music business. It also glosses over the band’s long succession of drummers – five in all – felled by everything from alcoholism to failing to meet the band’s heroic work ethic.
In the end Crowe, an Oscar winner (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) who started as a 15-year-old writer for Rolling Stone and married into Seattle rock royalty by wedding Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, creates a fan’s love letter to the band. Friendly with them throughout their 20-plus-year career, the director finds footage of their second show together – the hit song Alive already was nearly in its final form – along with intimate interviews with each of the current bandmembers and vintage footage.
But Vedder remains an eccentric cipher in this film, which remains too polite to delve into much very deeply beyond the band’s early years, leaving the feeling that you never quite got the full story of how a band this powerful lasted this long.
American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WEDU-Ch. 3.