Rock documentaries made by fans of the band fall into two categories: They either exclude nonbelievers or draw them into the fold. "Pearl Jam Twenty" starts out exclusionary but opens the gates before it's through.
Writer-director Cameron Crowe, whose idea it was to examine the celebrated Seattle-based band in time for its 20th anniversary, is no ordinary fan. His films include "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous," and he has the Matt Damon-starring "We Bought a Zoo" due for December release.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Pearl Jam Twenty": A review of the film "Pearl Jam Twenty" in the Sept. 23 Calendar section misstated the year that nine fans died at the band's show at the Roskilde music festival in Denmark. It was 2000, not 1990. —
Crowe started as a rock journalist who moved to Seattle in 1989 and soon met the two musicians who were the band's original core: bassist Jeff Ament and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard. If guys you knew way back when ended up selling more than 60 million albums worldwide, you'd want to make this film too.
Unfortunately for civilians, "Pearl Jam Twenty" assumes we are as familiar with Gossard, Ament and the rest of the band (drummer Matt Cameron, lead guitar Mike McCready and lead vocalist Eddie Vedder) as we are with members of our own family. It rushes introductions and throws us confusingly into the middle of a music scene we may be only glancingly familiar with.
Similarly, the early candid footage of band members when they were youngsters with a whole lot of rock 'n' roll attitude eager to make faces at the camera plays for the uninitiated like home movies of someone else's family.
Fortunately, Crowe and his team of demon researchers have gone through more than 30,000 hours of Pearl Jam-related footage and come up with strong music segments taking the band from its very beginnings up to today and including shots of Vedder climbing scaffolding high above concert stages and diving into crowds like there was no tomorrow.
"Pearl Jam Twenty's" biggest asset for rank-and-file viewers is its interviews with the band members as articulate present-day adults, thoughtful individuals in their 40s who don't necessarily treat themselves with the same reverence the moviemakers do.
The film starts back with Mother Love Bone, a Seattle band that included Gossard and Ament that collapsed in 1990 when charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood died of an overdose. The resulting search for a new lead singer lead to an audition tape from a young Californian named Eddie Vedder, and once he joined the reconstituted band, success was only a matter of time.
How the band members dealt with that success, and with the explosion of the Seattle music scene in general, is the subject of some of the most interesting interviews. Vedder, a bandmate says, never wanted overnight success. And the singer himself wryly recounts how a coffee shop waitress, seeing him react ambivalently after being recognized by a fan in the early days, told him: "If you don't like it, you picked the wrong business to be in."
Another turning point for Pearl Jam was their appearance at the 1990 Roskilde music festival in Denmark, where nine fans died in a crush during the band's set, an incident that affected everyone deeply and produced a new perspective on their work. The film also touches on, but doesn't follow up on, the band's principled boycott of Ticketmaster because of its pricing policies.
Though it doesn't pretend to be a dispassionate documentary portrait and rigorously excludes anything about private lives, by the time "Pearl Jam Twenty" is over we can't help but be impressed by the kind of personal and professional integrity that has kept the band honest and allowed them to endure and prosper. That, and the ability to make great rock music.