You quickly get the sense, watching the fortysomething members of Pearl Jam bounce off each other in Cameron Crowe's intimate documentary on the band's life, Twenty, that no one is more surprised this group still exists than the band members 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 turned heroic martyrs after frontman Kurt Cobain shot and killed himself in 1994. Soundgarden was full of the freaky, aggressive rockers; dudes as likely to beat you up and steal your car as party with you.
But, led by aggressively antifame 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 success it hurt; turning his back on music videos, firing a band member for digging the stardom too much and picking a yearslong fight with Ticketmaster.
But somehow, improbably, Pearl Jam was the band left standing after all the 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 American Masters' film Pearl Jam Twenty.
There are cheap shots here, too. 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney is shown sneering at Grunge Nation after Cobain's death, noting that these angst-ridden kids never faced a world war or a Vietnam. Crowe presents him as a cartoonish crank.
But Rooney had a point, evidenced by the band's acceptance of its elder-rocker status now. Mired in a recession that 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. 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) 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 was already nearly in its final form — along with intimate interviews of current band members 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 you never quite get the full story on how a band this powerful lasted this long.
American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WEDU-Ch. 3.
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