In VH1's "Behind the Music" biography series, very often, at around the 40-minute mark, tragedy befalls the band or the singer, usually involving narcotics, alcohol or jail -- or all of the above.
But in "American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty," airing Friday, Oct. 21, on PBS -- as part of the first PBS Arts Fall Festival (check local listings) -- the two-hour documentary from director and music journalist Cameron Crowe essentially gets to the 40-minute mark and then just stays there, since all the founding members of Pearl Jam continue alive and free.
"People used to say," Crowe says, "about some of the stories that I wrote for Rolling Stone, they would say, 'Why don't you write about Iggy Pop? Why don't you write about Stiv Bators?' And I'd be like, 'Well, let the Stiv Bators story be written by somebody who's invested in that music.'
"But still, that was the challenge, to do a movie about a band that wasn't that, and did survive. That's why there are leaps we had to take, years where literally they're just surviving and playing concerts. So that became part of the story."
And in this story, the tragedy happens before Pearl Jam is even formed.
Members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were also in another Seattle band in the '80s, called Mother Love Bone, with charismatic frontman Andrew Wood. Sadly, at 24, Wood died following a heroin overdose.
As to whether the film is, in a way, Wood's story, Crowe says, "It is kind of that. When we started, that was one of the things that I really thought about. His story needed to be told, and from that, I thought the whole Pearl Jam tale should come, as it did in life."
Toward the end of the movie, there is even footage of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder performing one of Wood's songs.
"I did an interview with them early on," says Crowe, "where Eddie wouldn't tell me what song it was that he would sing, at some point, of Wood's. So when I heard that he played 'Crown of Thorns' at the concert, I said, 'Fantastic, I've got to get a recording.' "
Strangely enough, it's that lack of a "Behind the Music" tragedy that attracted Crowe to doing a Pearl Jam documentary.
"If we had the movie where somebody does die at the 40-minute mark," he says, "we wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have done it; you wouldn't be talking to me. Just another one of those films
"I always get the feeling that, if civilization disappears for a while, and all this stuff that exists now goes into a time capsule, somebody comes along later, goes, 'Oh, rock music, it was made by people that die young.' "
In his 1992 film "Singles," Crowe set a romantic comedy against the backdrop of the early '90s Seattle grunge music scene that gave Pearl Jam its start. But with little rock on the radio and the record industry in financial tatters, today's bands may not have that advantage.
"Anybody who's got a shot," says Crowe, "is so inundated with all the things they have to do to try to transcend the fact that there's no radio, and there's no culture, rock culture, that's the same. So they're forced to do all this mainstream stuff, if they can even get in on it.
"So they have to enter in the mainstream with their tin cups out for all kinds of love and appreciation immediately. It gives no one a chance to find them, and there's no culture to sustain them, which is a drag."
'American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty' profiles rock survivors
"American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty" airs Friday on PBS (check local listings).
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