With Cameron Crowe and his music sense, we could think of no better creative mind to tackle the documentary Pearl Jam 20. The Seattle rock band is marking 20 years in the music business with a doc that chronicles their beginnings out of the tragedy that was Mother Love Bone through their triumphs over the next two decades.
Pearl Jam grew out of Mother Love Bone, a Seattle band on the cusp of superstardom when their lead singer, Andy Wood, overdosed and died. From those ashes, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard began playing together again a few months after Wood’s passing. When an acoustic tape of the group landed in the hands of San Diego singer Eddie Vedder, history was made.
Crowe turns his camera on the band as well as pulling visuals from over 1,200 hours of tape from the band’s history. His music sense, displayed in films such as Almost Famous and Singles (in which Pearl Jam cameoed) -- not to mention his background as a rock journalist -- provides Pearl Jam 20 the even-handedness musically and visually that it so needs and deserves.
Pearl Jam 20 is an astounding piece of work, whether documentary or feature. Simply, it is a riveting film. Pearl Jam is much more than its history and hits. Crowe lays out their impact on culture, not just popular culture, from a fan’s perspective that appreciates everything the band stands for and is musically and personally.
Crowe’s cameras interview all the band’s members, as well as good friend and Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell. Crowe also uses those hours of video footage from the band’s collective lives and as a package, it is top notch.
The film begins by introducing the Mother Love Bone element to Pearl Jam and how the group rose from the tragedy of Wood’s death to become one of the most relevant rock groups of our time. Wood wanted so badly to be a rock star and Crowe captures that impeccably. Vedder even says late in the film after the group’s success has been more than documented that Wood would have loved to play Madison Garden as Pearl Jam has and the glimmer in his eyes and his smile is as infectious as the entire film Pearl Jam 20.
Any documentary worth its weight has to have several elements: A firm grasp of the history of the subject, a voice that narrates it (and not necessarily a voice over narration, simply through the telling of the story) and an ability to place the doc’s subject in a bigger context of its impact on society as a whole. Cameron achieves this in droves. This isn’t simply a film of the band’s greatest hits and live shows that are legendary. There are highs, as well as lows. The doc follows Pearl Jam through their troubles with Ticketmaster -- that landed Gossard and Ament in front of Congress. There’s the death of several people at a concert in Denmark and its affect on the band. Then, there’s the well documented whirlwind of “overnight” success that almost destroyed them.
Above the fanfare of a fantastic film that Pearl Jam 20 is, there is the music. Pearl Jam’s music has always been at the core of their entity. Even Flow, Alive, Not for You, Daughter and Do the Evolution may be highlights in the film, but Cameron doesn’t shy away from songs that spurred controversy, such as one powerful scene at the Nassau Coliseum when the band rocked Bushleaguer in 2004. Major boos ensued and that piece of video shows the dangerous time that the country went through during that period and how Pearl Jam didn’t shy away from ridicule, regardless of the price.
It is that passion for doing what’s right and what’s right for them that has allowed Pearl Jam to persevere for two decades. After witnessing Crowe’s Pearl Jam 20, we are ready for 20 more.