Jamming for two decades

Cameron Crowe’s visceral documentary about Pearl Jam traces the rock band’s well-earned rise to fame.

Pearl Jam 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Pearl Jam 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
The documentary Pearl Jam at Twenty is clearly a labor of love.
Since its release last year, it has been put out there as “a definitive portrait of the band as told by Oscar Award-winning filmmaker and music journalist Cameron Crowe” which, as PR bytes go, isn’t a bad marketing route to follow. Then again, after viewing the documentary, most rock fans might consider the end product to be even better than the one-liner would have you believe. Pearl Jam at Twenty is now available on HOT VOD and YES VOD, courtesy of OrlandoVOD.
As you would expect, the film is jam-packed with interviews with the members of the band and other musicians from the Seattle and other rock scenes. The history of the group is covered thoroughly, from the very beginnings of Mother Love Bone, the late 1980s rock group that included bassist Jeff Ament and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, who eventually became part of Pearl Jam.
More importantly, perhaps, Mother Love Bone was fronted by wild and woolly singer Andy Wood, whose outon- a-limb personality and songwriting abilities helped the group climb up to the top of the Seattle rock pile. Wood, who died of a drug overdose in 1990 at age 24, also left an indelible imprint on Ament and Gossard’s artistic development.
More than anything, the film is a fresh-faced portrayal of the band’s ups and downs, as well as a tribute to the members’ ability to endure the roller coaster ride that is the lot of every successful rock band. This is a mostly no-holds-barred account of where the musicians came from and how they got to where they are today.
Pearl Jam devotees will surely revel in the footage from some of the band’s early gigs through to a later unplugged spot, to shows by the older and more mature Pearl Jam. Vocalist Eddie Vedder’s jaw-dropping free falls into the crowd and the undisguised concern of his bandmates about whether their frontman should be dangling from the stage rafters before launching into the audience also provide delightful entertainment spots.
There is a refreshing breath of candor that runs through the film, and anyone who grew up with rock ‘n’ roll will find it is easy to go with the band’s evolutionary flow.
Shots of Ament and Gossard as teenage rock fans – even though, by then, they had already begun their own odyssey as performing artists around the local gigging circuit – put you right there where they were coming from then. Essentially, they seem to have retained a degree of that innocence and unsullied approach to what they really want to do – just play music.
Soundgarden rock band lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Cornell, who also played in one-off Andy Wood tribute band Temple of the Dog, talks about “the camaraderie and healthy competition” and how members of Pearl Jam and others on the Seattle rock scene were supportive of each other. How different, he notes, it all was from the dog-eat-dog scene in New York.
That is one of the overriding messages that come across in the documentary.
You cannot help but be charmed by the insouciance of the young musicians as they playfully crash into each other on stage at an early 1990s concert, and they seem to have managed to stay level-headed throughout. Mind you, this is the rock scene we’re on about here, and there is the odd reference to drug-taking and some other concomitant somewhat risqué conduct. But there is no whiff of bitching that comes across, for example, in Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’s autobiography Life.
Crowe’s account of the band’s two decades and counting is positive, almost to a fault, but you do not get a sense of sycophantism. Indeed, the rosy facts are all there – Pearl Jam’s fight against the monopolistic endeavors of ticket sales and distributor leviathan Ticketmaster, and vocalist Eddie Vedder’s biting antiestablishment remarks as the band took the stage to receive its Grammy Award. Curiously, however, Ament does not explain why the band attended the glittering industry event in the first place.
Besides putting in plenty of overtime on this project – the twohour film was culled from more than 1,200 hours of rarely and never-before- seen footage – Crowe produced a documentary that is paced to perfection. From the concert footage, you get an almost palpable sense of what it was like to be there.
When Vedder tells a crowd of 60,000 at one of the band’s first open-air concerts, “I never expected to play for so many people,” you know he is speaking from the gut.
The viewer grows with the band as we follow its winding road into an initial, and unexpected, flush of success, through the odd popularity trough or two, the horror of Vedder’s face as nine fans are crushed to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2000, and his attempts to appeal to a beefy security man’s gentler side while the latter’s colleagues brutally deal with a drunken fan.
While Pearl Jam at Twenty may not be the stuff of incisive, critical reporting, Pearl Jam fans will enjoy the ride, and the previously uninitiated may find themselves keying in the band’s name on YouTube.
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