by Lee Hazell
Pearl Jam first had dealings with Cameron Crowe back in 1992 after Crowe requested a bunch of bands on the Seattle scene contribute to the soundtrack of his new romantic comedy based in the city. Alice in Chains provided “Would?”, Smashing Pumpkins gave “Drown” and Pearl Jam handed in “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust”. So impressed was Crowe by the band that he gave Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament cameos in the film. It was to be the first and last time they would dip their ten collective toes into the acting pool.
The film attempted to be the definitive cinematic representation of the alternative lifestyle in the early 90’s. In that respect the film was a dismal failure. The Seattle scene was never about love or commitment, the films two most prominent themes. The musicians of Seattle may have wrote their fair share of love songs but they were always more preoccupied with subjects wilfully ignored by the mainstream. It focused on addiction, loss and alienation, things that the disaffected youth struggled with but were unable to understand. People like Layne Staley, Chris Cornell and Eddie were finally writing the songs that made sense of these kids lives.
But where Cameron was successful though, was in predicting the longevity of these bands. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains have both faced oblivion and both have come back from the brink. Mudhoney and Screaming Trees have become cult legends that bar room musicians still try to impress with by name dropping. Nirvana’s music has endured better than most bands still touring. And Pearl Jam remain one of the most powerful bands in rock twenty years on.
This film celebrates the career of this seminal act.
This isn’t the first time that Cameron Crowe has taken on Rock ‘n Roll though. But he may have been on surer footing with his 2000 semi-autobiographical flick Almost Famous. Pearl Jam Twenty at first seems to struggle with the material and its subjects. Crowe is a man who lives a very spiritual existence and as such is far more at home with fiction than he is with the truth.
The beginnings and origins of the band should be as gripping as they are tragic but Ament and Gossard are simply not comfortable enough in front of camera to truly let their emotions go, at least not in the way that would make for entertaining viewing. Crowe, like so many documentary makers who tackle the subject of their favourite bands, has no desire to push his line of enquiry further than he believes will make his interviewees feel comfortable. Then again, seeing as how they spend half the film lamenting the increased visual nature of the business what were we to expect from a band so clearly out of their comfort zone?
You get the sense that if the bits and pieces Crow has chosen to thread though his opening act were the best he could find then he hasn’t really tried to make a theatrical documentary, more a promotional video to be bundled in with an album. Also like most other rock docs of this variety you are never even given a glimpse of the performers in a less than flattering light. Every topic is handled with kid gloves and you never have any inkling that any of them are anything less than the nicest guys in rock. Even when we do get so see some genuine rage or emotion it’s only when Eddie Vedder is heading up another one of his selfless causes.
But when these moments do happen they are some of the films most memorable moments. They provide such a juxtaposition from the sensitive, slightly nervous artist who comes alive when the riffs kick in. There is one scene in the film where this transformation is so abrupt it borders on the shocking. Upon seeing a drunk fan be roughly manhandled by one of the security guards his intensity bursts through his carefully laid emotional barriers to reveal a bubbling cauldron of rage in the face of this abuse of power. He stares at the back of the guards head with such primal rage that if looks could kill they’d be mopping this guys brains up from the floor.
The film also suffers from another problem that may well have been unavoidable considering the path of publicity the band has trodden on for the last two decades. The film can sometimes feel like it’s the Eddie Vedder show. With half of the film made up of archive footage from the era and Eddie being the elected face of the band, the film doesn’t have much of a choice than to be extremely Vedder-centric. Some members of the band don’t even feel like they’ve been properly introduced until two thirds of the way into the film.
However, if you’ve managed to find out about this film you’re probably not just a casual observer. You’re probably a dedicated fan who has relished the chance to hear some of the best music of the 90’s with the magic of cinema surround sound. It is here that the film finds its purpose. Fantastic performance pieces spanning the whole two decades, each showing a different side to this tetrahedron of a band. We have the rough early performances, the breakthrough festival gigs, the controversial political protests, quieter acoustic moments, etc. Pearl Jam really are a far more diverse band that most people would credit them for.
Admittedly the only thing Crowe had to do here was pick and choose the best ones, but its one job he absolutely nails. In particular the performance of Bu$hleaguer (one of those political protest ones) is hilarious and very revealing about the bands uncompromising ideals towards performance and art. Eddie dons a shiny silver suit and wears a George W. Bush mask that gets soaked with beer before the nights over. The band is then booed over a song that paints the picture of a war being waged to protect the decadent lifestyles of the rich as opposed to the freedom of the Iraqi people.
Pearl Jam Twenty is fan service, pure and simple. It’s an excuse for fans to spend a little more time to get to know their heroes and to see the live performances that are all too rare on this side of the pond. But if you are impartial to the considerable talents of Vedder and co, there isn’t much for you here. More of a documentation than a documentary, there is precious little drama and the moments of comedy are fleeting. It simply isn’t a proper film. It’s a music video, not for one song, but for two decades worth of them. However, seeing as they have been so adverse to the idea of music videos for so long, I think I could still find the room for this on my shelf.