[Pearl Jam Twenty premieres tonight on PBS at 9:00 pm EST.]
Pearl Jam Twenty spans the two-decade-long journey of the other musical act from Seattle. Setting out to author the definitive account of Pearl Jam’s formation and endurance, director and long-time fan Cameron Crowe infuses the project with a breadth of knowledge as well as an appreciation for a band whose influence, he believes, speaks beyond dwindling record sales in recent years. Indeed, few would deny the historical significance of Pearl Jam as a moniker for the rise of grunge (despite the fact that the band would reject the term), but Crowe’s work frames the band at the center of a changing music and cultural scene from the 1990s into the 2000s. Pearl Jam Twenty features extensive interviews with band members and other folks tied to the history of the band. Wrapped within its travelogue of concert footage and behind-the-scenes video are various threads tied to band’s rise and prominence, from its bonds and performances with 1960s music legends such as Neil Young and Pete Townsend, to Andy Rooney’s ignorant rambling about modern teen angst. In Crowe’s vision, these details are integral to how Pearl Jam endures and why their story resonates as one of survival and integrity in the presently grim state of rock.
The film opens in Crowe’s hometown of Seattle with nary a mention of Pearl Jam. Crowe narrates over skyline shots that shift to ground level, humming to the furious guitar chords that would epitomize the underground Seattle rock scene. It is here that, as he sees it, music lovers convened over a mutual thirst for a new sound. Taking his time to establish a context for the formation of Pearl Jam, Crowe gives particular attention to the demise of Mother Love Bone, whose decidedly hair band sound contrasts heavily with the more soulful anthems for which Pearl Jam became famous. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament guide us through a personal journey of their frontman’s tragic death from substance abuse. This set a solemn tone for a band that would eventually conquer music and remain continually wary of the fame that would follow. But it only achieved that status with the entrance of a vocalist named Eddie Vedder, to whom they gave a chance in what became their defining moment.
Whether these early scenes accurately portray these events or their wider significance is practically irrelevant. Pearl Jam Twenty’s assured opening passages establish it as equal parts a profile of the band and a personal journey for the director. Thus, how Crowe sees the band is arguably more revealing than what’s revealed from and about the band. And from the outset, Crowe is unafraid to express his enthusiasm as well as his knowledge of Pearl Jam and rock in general.
The notion of Crowe as a student of rock strikes a familiar chord. His 2000 semi-autobiographical feature Almost Famous depicted the rock and roll scene of the late 1960’s from the perspective of an aspiring music journalist who accompanies a band on the road. The intimate narration in the early-going of Pearl Jam Twenty echoes the quixotic but pained vision of rock culture that Almost Famous cultivated, as expressed through the fictitious band Stillwater’s frontman, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Crowe’s entry point into Pearl Jam as both an enthusiast of rock and a giddy fan of the band bears strong similarities to that of the naïve teenager from Almost Famous. Crowe fawns over Eddie Vedder, painting in enigmatic, poetic tones in effort to put him on the pedestal of rock greats. Crowe elegantly captures the performer’s inner demons and impassioned stage presence, but the film becomes so transfixed with him that both its focus on the personal stories of the band members and its wider plunge into the cultural landscape that Pearl Jam found itself resting on top of somewhat suffers. To be sure, the sight of Vedder dangling some 50 feet above the stage is a brilliant image unto itself, but Crowe lionizes Vedder to such an extent that he renders himself unable to really explore the singer’s inner workings. By extension, the unique brand of observation and personal admiration somewhat morphs into Behind-The-Music territory with its strained rest on Vedder’s reflections.
From Vedder’s introduction onward, Pearl Jam Twenty swiftly navigates the post-mania stage of the band’s popularity, charting its appearance on Capitol Hill to fight Ticketmaster to Vedder’s hot-and-cold relationship with Kurt Cobain. Crowe attempts to balance these points in the band’s history with the performers’ own weighty reflections on fame, success, and (of course) mortality. He also tries to connect all of this to various things outside the band, from a chronicle of Vedder’s on-stage political statements to one inspired shot of David Lynch. And although these components are efficiently deployed, the film frequently feels hurried, as if it must hit every point on a checklist of topics in what ultimately amounts to a “How They Got Together and Stayed Together” narrative. Which is why for all its stylistic and visual flair—which includes some sensational concert footage—Pearl Jam Twenty is more conventional than it aspires and ought to be. The Kids Are Alright or The Last Waltz it is not.
But underneath the stubbornly straightforward presentation of the band’s 20 years together is another far more worthwhile story. As noted previously, Pearl Jam’s impact on and role in the transformation of popular music in the early 1990s is undeniable. But Pearl Jam Twenty eschews this narrative by suggesting that the band’s longevity and integrity have distinguished them in the current, fractured age of culture and music. The implications for this are touched on briefly but in a broader sense capture the overall sentiments of the film. Over 20 years, a band that started as a leading voice in the pulse of music became essentially an independent brand, isolated from the increasingly corporatized face of the music industry. Crowe’s focus on the band’s own feelings and reflections dilutes this story and also prevents him from making a direct case as to the significance of Pearl Jam’s music. But the film’s life comes from how Crowe distills his deep love for and knowledge of rock into a nostalgic tribute to a less tangible idea. For Crowe, Pearl Jam stands for something. Not a political statement or moral cause (though the band has offered plenty of those). Rather, in Crowe’s account, Pearl Jam is one of the last purveyors of rock, which is as much a concept as it is a practice.
If Pearl Jam Twenty suffers from straining to account for various points of view, then it excels as an account of personal idealism. The film’s final moments capture this elegantly, taking a single performance of the song “Alive” and intercutting various clips of the band’s performances over the years into a charged montage of music and motion. Whatever one’s feelings may be on Pearl Jam’s music—an amalgam of styles and periods in American rock—Crowe’s film is a veiled ode to rock and roll and a testament to that euphoric feeling of connecting with music, be it through a single song or a band that endures for two decades.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.