If anyone was asked to direct the definitive documentary about Pearl Jam, it would have to be Cameron Crowe. Luckily, he was.
The former Seattle-based reporter for Rolling Stone and director of such musically-influenced movies such as “Singles” (which features a cameo appearance of the band itself) and “Almost Famous,” is a long-time close friend of the band and was granted unparalleled access for the documentary chronicling the 20th anniversary of the band’s formation in “Pearl Jam Twenty.” The result is a comprehensive and detailed history of the band that features significant amounts of never-before-seen audio and video footage. The access gained by Crowe proves to be highly entertaining and fascinating and paints a picture of the group not typically seen by the general public.
Crowe traces the band’s beginnings back to 1988 with the formation of the group Mother Love Bone, which featured current band members Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass guitar). Following the death of lead singer Andrew Wood due to a heroin overdose at age 24, Gossard and Ament would go on to form the band currently known as Pearl Jam after receiving a demo tape from San Diego-based singer Eddie Vedder.
The film contains roughly 1,200 hours of rarely and never before seen footage of the group, and Crowe definitely puts it to good use. While the interviews and concert footage from around the world are interesting, it’s the pure, raw video footage of the band when they aren’t performing that makes this documentary so engaging. One example is a scene from their tour bus in which the band records an early version of “Daughter” – originally written as “Brother.”
One of the significant themes of the film deals with how the group struggled with their early success. Another fascinating raw scene captures Vedder during his penchant for climbing into the stage’s rafters during a set, only to stage dive into a sea of adoring fans. He eventually retreats backstage, worn out and exhausted, and stands hunched over for several minutes by himself.
“When you sit in your room playing guitar, you don’t have to worry about being successful,” Vedder explains regarding the band’s sudden success. “It’s not going to happen.”
Indeed, the film manages to detail how the band’s seemingly-overnight success pushed them into a stratosphere never anticipated by any members of the group – one that even led to Kurt Cobain’s criticism of the band for “selling out.”
The film also details the band’s controversial attempts at a boycott of Ticketmaster, one in which the band’s respect for their fans was brought to the point where they refused to comply with their surcharge policy and would go on to avoid playing any Ticketmaster-sponsored arenas (including large-profile venues such as Madison Square Garden) for a stretch of several years.
Yet despite these struggles, bumps along the way and even tragedies (such as a tragic accident while the band performed at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2000 that saw nine people crushed due to overcrowding), the band has managed to stay together and prosper to the point where they can now do things on their own terms – for the best interests of both themselves and their fans.
Besides the interviews with members of the band, significant time is given to Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell as well. Cornell goes into detail about the history between the two bands, including a nugget from Johnny Ramone explaining how he had never seen such healthy competition and friendship between two bands as he had seen between Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Temple of the Dog, the collaboration between Cornell and Pearl Jam, is also mentioned in detail, with Vedder’s band mates taking note of his powerful vocals alongside the distinctive Cornell.
Crowe’s familiarity with the band is the key to what makes this documentary work. His seemingly-unlimited access to the band provides some fascinating scenes, including a tour of Gossard’s house that reveals very little Pearl Jam memorabilia (but does reveal an extremely filthy coffee mug) and some emotional words from Vedder regarding his relationship with his stepfather.
“Pearl Jam Twenty” is not earth shattering and likely will not be remembered as well as more famous rock documentaries such as “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones,” or U2’s “Rattle and Hum,” but the story of how the band has managed to thrive for two decades is a fascinating one, and thanks to Crowe’s access to the band, he is able to accurately portray the band’s colorful history in a way that few others would have been able to.
The film is presented as a fascinating history of the band’s last 20 years and much of that credit has to go to Crowe’s film work. Even if one doesn’t consider themselves a Pearl Jam fan, the story of how they became one of the biggest bands in the world in such a short amount of time is an interesting one to anyone who considers themselves a fan of music and the history of music.