‘Pearl Jam Twenty’
***1/2 (3.5 Stars)
By Anthony Kuzminski
Most people who discovered Pearl Jam in the 1990’s had two distinctive periods with them. The first was of adoration for their overzealous passion for their music and their message. The second was of disdain for their overzealous passion for their music and their message. I was one of these people. Their music and unforgettable concerts left a mark on anyone open to hearing them. However, as the band became more outspoken something happened. I (and many others) turned away from the band. It was a mixture of not being able to see them live, music I couldn’t relate to and the perceived bitterness of fame they exuded. However, a number of years later, I caught them in concert and all that time washed away as they once again became a bad I didn’t just follow, but admired. The quirk of fate is that so much of what they railed against came to fruition a little more than a decade later. The $3.50 convenience charge became more than $20- the disparity between rich and poor has grown and we now have a generation of true disenfranchisement. And award shows, do they really matter at all?
Read my Pearl Jam 20 Festival Report from Alpine Valley HERE & HERE
In celebration of the band’s twentieth anniversary friend and filmmaker Cameron Crowe has created a festive, invigorating and highly affecting love letter to them entitled Pearl Jam Twenty. Make no mistake, this was done as a partnership between him and the band, however, it also houses several thorny moments in their career that other acts would choose to gloss over or refuse to even acknowledge exist. This is precisely why Pearl Jam Twenty is more than a run of the mill music documentary. It doesn’t merely tell you an A-Z story or even cover the writing and recording of every album, but it explores the band’s soul and how they managed to make it through two decades of inconceivable triumph and equally extreme trauma.
Crowe met with each of the five current members of Pearl Jam for a wide-ranging set of interviews. No managers, producers or other outside people were interviewed honing the film’s focus in on the band. The sole exception for the current interviews was given to Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. Cornell wrote the Temple of the Dog record and was Andy Wood’s roommate. His interviews are integral to the film because he’s the one outsider who truly puts their history into perspective. None of the former drummers are talked to although McCready gives a short but tongue-in-cheek history of their Spinal Tap luck with the men behind the kit.
Watching Pearl Jam Twenty is a deeply psychologically gut wrenching experience. Crowe brilliantly tells their tale through a momentous amount of new interviews with the current five members, Chris Cornell and a slew of vintage footage which really heightens the emotional punch of the film. Stone Gossard who has taken a back seat to a lot of Pearl Jam’s press provides the most surprising sound bytes. I find him secluded yet enlivening all at the same time. He appears more comfortable with Crowe than he does even with a six-string around his neck. There’s a particularly funny moment when he takes Crowe to his basement and his finds his Grammy buried in the back of a room out of sight from everyone. Vedder’s interviews are almost reserved which stand in direct contrast to the overwhelming passion in the early footage. However when they dig into the Roskilde tragedy in 2000 (where nine fans were crushed at one of their concerts) Vedder doesn’t need to say anything, his eyes tell us everything. Above all else, the current day interviews find these five men at peace with not just their past but who they are today. They’ve aged but they have also matured. Their personal lives go largely untouched, which is the way it should be. Crowe was out to make more than a documentary but a larger piece of art like a painting where there’s a focal point in the center of it with different shades and hues around the corners and sides.
What differentiates Pearl Jam Twenty from other rock documentaries is that is delves into their controversies head-on. The Ticketmaster debacle is covered, Vedder’s off centered comments at the 1996 Grammy ceremony are shown and then there’s the MTV Singles party from 1992. The band didn’t want to do it this show but did it as a favor to Crowe where the movie studio told him they would only release Singles if Pearl Jam agreed to perform a MTV concert for the premiere. It was their only day off that particular week and as a result, they were inebriated when show time came around. This experience proved to be a lesson they would learn from in the future, sometimes it’s good to say no to things. It wasn’t that they didn’t want success but they so desperately wanted it on their terms and not anyone else’s.
These songs meant the world to a whole generation of music fans twenty years ago and now they mean even more. As you see Pearl Jam perform “Alive” from a recent show it reminds us of the intoxicating strength music has and its ability to heal us in ways no modern medicine ever could. Their anger, aggression, passion, talent, longevity and commitment to their art are perfectly encapsulated in this one performance. Towards the end of the live performance, Eddie Vedder raises his hand and changes a tiny lyric as he sings “We’re all still alive”! It’s a poignant reminder to not just Pearl Jam, but us, the listeners, have survived as well.
Pearl Jam Twenty will air on PBS on Friday October 21st as part of its American Masters program and will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 24th.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter