On Friday night, PBS stations will premiere Pearl Jam Twenty as a part of their Emmy Award winning American Masters Series. The documentary, which chronicles the origin of the legendary rock band and follows their successes and low points from the past twenty years, was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, the Academy Award winning writer/director of Almost Famous and Jerry MaGuire.
Pearl Jam has a relationship with Crowe that dates back to the mid- 80’s, when members of Pearl Jam were in the group Mother Love Bone. Crowe, then living in Seattle, was a fan of that band and was just as devastated as the rest of the Seattle community when Mother Love Bone’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, died from an overdose. Mother Love Bone broke up and from its ashes bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard hooked up with another guitarist, Mike McCready, and a new band began to take shape.
Crowe spends a nice portion of the movie detailing the events that took place in order for the band to come together. The three musicians recorded a demo with Soundgarden drummer, Matt Cameron, and that demo wound up in the hands of a San Diego surfer. Yeah, it was Eddie Vedder. The quiet young singer flew up to Washington and Mookie Blaylock was born. Named after the NBA player for the New Jersey Nets, the band was forced to change their name when they landed a recording contract. That’s when they became Pearl Jam.
After showing the intricacies of the bands formation, Crowe leads us on a journey through the height of the bands popularity in the early to mid 90’s, through their dip in popularity in the late 90’s, and their rebirth as one of the most popular concert acts in the world at the dawn of the new century. Through exclusive interviews with Ament, Gossard, McCready and Vedder, topics such as the difficulties of fame, the Ticketmaster battle that the band waged in late 90’s, and the tragic Roskilde festival concert in Denmark where nine fans were killed during their performance.
Intertwined with the interviews are rare performances, some never before seen by the public. Devout Pearl Jam fans and casual listeners alike will enjoy the remarkable footage that includes early super 8 movies of Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam’s second ever live performance (featuring a flawless ”Alive”), as well as intimate recordings and latter day concert footage that shows the band as one of the best live acts working today.
This is a beautifully crafted film; it’s obvious that Crowe has a deep affection for the band and their music. However, I have mixed feelings about it as a whole. Too often it feels as if difficult subjects of the band’s history are only given brief minutes, but do not offer too much insight. For instance, Twenty definitely gives you insight as to how the band came together and how they have managed to survive. However, Crowe totally blows it when it comes to the subject of the rotating drummers in the band. Pearl Jam has been through four drummers and only one of them (Cameron) is actually interviewed for the movie.
The guy who played drums on Ten? He gets mentioned once, in passing. The guy who was part of their lineup during the height of their popularity and who was ousted from the group for reasons that remain a fuzzy? He gets mentioned in passing. The guy who came to the rescue and helped keep the band together through the 90’s? Yeah, he gets mentioned once or twice. If there wasn’t Short section in film that jokingly discusses this issue, you’d think that Matt Cameron had been the band’s drummer for all twenty years.
Crowe spends so much time detailing the formation of the band, how Jeff and Stone met Mike and how they met Eddie… well, how the did Dave Krusen come to record the first album, Ten? Why did he quit the band and how did Dave Abbruzzese come to replace him for the follow up smashes, Vs. and Vitology? Why was Abbruzzese kicked out and Jack Irons summoned? The glossing over of these band members as if they didn’t contribute to the success of the band is a major disappointment.
Also, it would have been nice to hear from some of the bands contemporaries. Dave Grohl? Billy Corgan? The guys from Alice in Chains or the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Nada. Their mentor, Neil Young, is heard in a recording, but I find it hard to believe that the rock legend wouldn’t have made time for pals. Chris Cornell goes on camera to talk about the band, but he’s the only non-band member that is heard from. For this reason, the film is lacking. PBS audience members getting introduced to Pearl Jam for the first time should definitely enjoy Twenty, as it is well executed, a quality piece of filmmaking. Anyone hoping for a wee bit more insight, you may feel disappointed, too.
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