Taking as a given that Pearl Jam Twenty is a career-spanning documentary of a band whose career may only be half over, not to mention a film crafted to coincide with a year-long 20th-anniversary marketing onslaught, Cameron Crowe’s tribute to the Seattle group is a loving, gracefully crafted retrospective that shrewdly eschews Behind the Music conventions at most turns. Having covered the band since before its early-‘90s inception (when guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were still in up-and-coming Mother Love Bone), Crowe has a trove of self-shot and secondhand archival video and photos, and for die-hard fans there are rare gems aplenty strewn through this two-hour trip, from early club gigs to amusing anecdotes from friends (including Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell) to the sight of singer Eddie Vedder and Gossard penning “Daughter” on a tour bus. Wholly uninterested in puffing up his subjects into an iconic rock outfit on a par with their idols Led Zeppelin and the Who, Crowe instead merely tells their story free from the constraints of rise-fall-rise clichés. Avoiding a strict album-by-album chronology pockmarked by crisis involving death, substance abuse, and internal frictions, all of which are addressed, but with no trumped-up titillation, the director opts for a more free-flowing structure that concentrates, first and foremost, on the band’s dedication to personal and artistic camaraderie and integrity.
Pearl Jam Twenty touches on its quintet’s congressional testimony against Ticketmaster and subsequent turn away from the mainstream, developments partially ascribed to Vedder’s famous difficulties adjusting to cover-boy superstardom. These familiar topics aren’t glossed over, yet they’re also not cast as Big Moments so much as part of a natural evolution in which each band member gradually embraced the idea that the only means of maintaining a career after they’d ceased to be a grunge-fad phenom was to remain true to themselves and their instincts, a decision that had immediate, negative financial and interpersonal ramifications, but helped pave the way for their current thriving present. While more detail on the making of specific records would have provided greater insight into their creative process, which is only briefly spied, Crowe’s wealth of on-stage, in-studio, and behind-the-scenes footage creates consistent intimacy that’s furthered by new interviews that reveal the musicians to be rock stars of an unassuming sort. Be it racing through a recap of Pearl Jam’s many drummers, interjecting into their story an offhand David Lynch joke, or casually doubling back on the band’s history so as to focus more fully on Gossard and Ament’s relationship or McCready’s unique contributions to their sound, Pearl Jam Twenty elevates itself above a standard for-fans-only tribute through refreshing unconventionality and sincere affection and admiration.