Pearl Jam Twenty (Director: Cameron Crowe): Director Cameron Crowe revisits his rock journalist past with Pearl Jam Twenty, a retrospective of the Seattle band’s career and the first film that was accepted at this year’s festival. The screening I attended came a couple of days after the film’s world premiere and was sandwiched in between a couple of concerts in town for the band, so the numerous hardcore fans in attendance were exuberant and clearly in the midst of a Toronto Pearl Jam love-in. More casual or “lapsed fans” (such as myself), who lost touch with the group following their first decade of megastardom, might find themselves struggling to maintain a heightened level of interest as the story unfolds, however.
That story begins with a pre-grunge band called Mother Love Bone that featured future Pearl Jam members Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (guitar), who go on to form Pearl Jam after the drug overdose death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood. Crowe appropriately handles the material on Wood with delicacy, but the reverence afforded the marginally talented singer’s unmemorable work by his peers is overstated and completely failed to connect with me. Ament and Gossard are left to start over, adding guitarist Mike McCready and vocalist Eddie Vedder, who collectively form the core of the new group. All four members have stayed together since, with somewhat of a revolving door procession of drummers that the film humorously addresses in a short segment (the position is eventually stabilized with the addition of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron). The standard rock doc/Behind The Music fare is covered: the band grappling with the effects of their meteoric rise to fame, group power struggles, striving to stay musically relevant, and significant moments from their career, notably their noble attempt at taking on Ticketmaster, and the 2000 Roskilde Festival tragedy in Denmark, where nine fans were crushed to death during the band’s set.
Crowe was the beneficiary of a band that was very forward thinking in documenting their career, allowing him the luxury of having approximately 1200 hours of archival footage at his disposal. Much of it is rare or previously unseen, such as the clip (long rumoured to exist among Pearl Jam and Nirvana fans) of Vedder meeting supposed rival Kurt Cobain at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. As Vedder explains it, the two bickered with each other in the press, although the media blew their dislike for one another far out of proportion. Other memorable clips include one where Vedder barely manages to contain his rage toward an overly aggressive security guard during one of their Vancouver shows, plus numerous video examples demonstrating Vedder’s dangerous propensity for scaling to the upper levels of various venues while performing and launching himself into the audience. Scattered throughout the film are Crowe-shot live performances, including a version of “Alive” that only served to remind me that if I never hear that, or any of the other singles off their overplayed debut album again, it’ll be too soon. Band interviews reveal individuals who come across a little less serious than is probably their public perception, which is probably because Vedder, who appears to have mellowed with age, was more than insufferable enough for the entire band.
I probably expected more out of Pearl Jam Twenty, just because a big-name director like Crowe was at the helm. He does a thorough, competent job in presenting the band’s colourful story, an integral part of which has been their desire to diverge from the status quo career path that rock bands are supposed to take, but the film fails to stand out in the rock documentary sub-genre.
Pearl Jam Twenty received a worldwide one-time only theatrical screening on September 20th. It will be broadcast on the PBS American Masters series on October 21st, followed by a DVD and Blu-Ray release on October 25th.