Pearl Jam Twenty
In the history of filmmaking, the concept of a “rockumentary” has more than often been met with a bit of ridicule – after all, there is rarely a part of culture that can be as overblown and corny as rock and roll, so if a certain band did require to have its story told through 2 hours of film, there should have been a good reason for it.
There is in fact something very “filmic” about Pearl Jam’s 20-year story. The famous director and long-time fan Cameron Crowe certainly recognised that. In the early section of the film, Crowe is putting an emphasis on the late Andrew Wood, frontman of the band Mother Love Bone, the so-called predecessor band to Pearl Jam. Wood was well on his way to becoming a rock star before unfortunately succumbing to heroin addiction and overdosing, even before Mother Love Bone’s debut album Apple was released. You have your classic Hollywood tragedy right there, but even the obvious rock n’ roll cliché is avoided to an extent, in terms that Wood passed away well before he was to become famous, and not in the middle of rock stardom like many of his peers. The story of a quiet but intense and charismatic singer, completely new to the Seattle scene and unknown to everyone there, “replacing” Wood and leading Wood’s former bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, into huge success is something that even the people who know nothing about the band might find fascinating. And that’s just the beginning of the story. Following that, there are two stories that were vital to the band’s history and which makes them vastly different and possibly more poignant that some of their other rock counterparts - the band’s ill-fated crusade against Ticketmaster and its inflated concert ticket fee policies and the Roskilde festival tragedy in 2000, where 9 people were crushed dead in the audience while the band was playing. Added to that, another point that makes Pearl Jam special and different, therefore deserving of this kind of a documentary, is their reputation as one of the best live bands in the business, characterised by a huge fan following and their unique approach to concerts in terms of ever-changing setlists, the official bootleg program and the overall unpredictability.
The director covers most of these topics quite well – Cameron Crowe was a Rolling Stone journalist in the 70s, following a lot of the classic rock bands while on tour, and this experience obviously taught him to follow his instincts about talented local music scenes. This brought him to Seattle in the mid 80s, not long before the whole scene was ready to explode. One of the main advantages of the film is the fact that Crowe has been with Pearl Jam long before they even started, covering from Green River – first band where Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, the unseparable duo of the Seattle music scene, played together (with Mark Arm and Steve Turner of the great Seattle band Mudhoney, unfortunately not mentioned in the film) to Temple of the Dog, therefore having intimate and vast knowledge about most of the circumstances that revolved around what was to become Pearl Jam.
The Temple of the Dog project, led by Chris Cornell, the lead singer of the other Seattle giant Soundgarden and a very close friend of Andy Wood, was a full album tribute to the late singer, involving Gossard, Ament, a talented guitar player by the name of Mike McCready and Matt Cameron, the drummer of Soundgarden. As Crowe depicts through some clever editing in the film, backed up by some hilarious and insightful comments by Gossard and Cornell, it was during these sessions that the former Mother Love Bone bandmates realised that they will have something special at their hands in the future. Eddie Vedder, the singer for their new project – soon to be called Pearl Jam – just arrived to Seattle and shared lead vocals with Cornell on a track called “Hunger Strike” for the Temple of the Dog sessions. This song proved to be a catalyst for Vedder’s self-confidence, which only improved from thereon. Crowe shows with tons of never-seen before footage Vedder’s impressive development from a very shy and introspective guy who just got to Seattle as an unknown to everyone, to a crazy, out-of-control frontman that climbed 20-meter scaffoldings, throwing himself in the audience and putting as much as he can into his performance.
Although Vedder is the centrepiece of the story, Crowe did free enough space for other band members as well, who are being separately interviewed over the course of the film, along with Cornell. Cornell himself offers some nice insights into Mike McCready, who also came to his own during the Temple of the Dog sessions and brought this creativity into Pearl Jam afterwards. The unusual friendship (“unusual” for rock and roll standards) between Pearl Jam and Cornell’s Soundgarden is one of the more important components discussed in the film, which also subtly explains how Matt Cameron effortlessly joined the band as their 5th drummer in 1998, one year after Soundgarden broke up, therefore “saving” the band as Vedder puts it.
The way the overall drummer situation in the band is explained will not be satisfying for a lot of fans. It is depicted through a comical 1-minute segment, reminiscent of Spinal Tap. The long-rumoured dispute with Dave Abbruzzesse, Pearl Jam’s drummer during their most turbulent and popular years, has obviously not yet been put completely to rest, since the drummer does not get more than a second of mention.
The band’s struggle with fame and huge popularity in the early 90s is portrayed with enough dignity, avoiding most of the clichés and trying to make the band’s lack of comfort with it as understandable as possible. There are some statements from the band that may be puzzling to some (the infamous Grammy situation as an example), but the band members are as honest as they can be with the troubling aspects of that period that almost led to the band’s break-up. The more disturbing moments, as in the case of Vedder’s stalker crashing into his house or the effect of Kurt Cobain’s suicide on the future of the band, are put in balance with the sillier and hilariously bizarre moments, such as the clusterfuck that was the Singles premiere party, Gossard being revolted by the term “grunge” or Gossard and Ament giving Spanish “lessons” to the rest of the world.
Stone Gossard is in fact in many ways the star of the film, offering what are the funniest and the most telling moments, often at the same time, such as his comments on the aforementioned Singles party (“the birth of No”) and his obvious “facepalm” disgust at the patronising farce that was the congressional hearing about Ticketmaster and its feud with Pearl Jam in regards to the price of concert tickets. And what could be a better metaphor about Pearl Jam and its opinion about the music industry than Stone finding his Grammy in a dark corner of his basement?
As far as Crowe’s direction is concerned, it was not his obvious bias about the band that concerned me, as much as the pacing problems that convey in the second half of the film. It was obviously a huge endeavour to cover 20 years of history of the band, well documented by thousands and thousands of hours of footage, but the fact is that the film loses lot of its well-established rhythm in the first half of the film by cutting quite inexplicably from the announcement of a possible band break-up in 1995 to depicting more of where certain members have come from. This not only cuts the chronological build-up of the film, but also makes the following important events disjointed and not as connected and entwined, which was so well portrayed in the first half, as in the case of the aforementioned Mother Love Bone and Temple of the Dog cases.
A perfect example for this comes in the case of the Roskilde tragedy in 2000. The whole situation is covered in a somewhat rushed way, but the flaw is that there is no tangible conclusion to this story. After Ament’s comment that he might not have played music ever again after the incident, Crowe cuts abruptly to the events of the 2003 tour. The band had in fact played a huge North American tour just months after Roskilde, while a shadow of Roskilde was looming still over the concerts, resulting in some truly moving performances. Certain closure to these events was missing, which leads me again to the point that the 2nd half of the film was way too segmented. The Bushleaguer incident in 2003 is one of the more revealing and intense moments in the film, but also suffers due to having no background to the story.
Nevertheless, Crowe wraps up the film nicely with performances of Better Man and Alive, which show the huge response of the fans and the unique atmosphere a Pearl Jam concert has. The Andy Wood/Vedder parallel storyline is concluded through a moving montage of Vedder singing the Mother Love Bone song “Crown of Thorns” in 2000 and Wood singing it 10 years before. The one thing I personally missed in the film and believe is crucial to the band’s history and image is the official bootleg program, started in 2000, which gave them an interesting accomplishment in terms of commercial success and sprawled many imitators afterwards. 7 of their live albums debuted simultaneously on the Billboard 200 chart, which is a record on its own. Despite these flaws, Pearl Jam Twenty seems to be a well-represented document of the band’s history, offering some moving moments and making it possible to see the band in a new light. After all, who didn’t want to know that Stone was such a terrible dish washer?