Film review: Pearl Jam Twenty

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Capturing 20 years of band’s career in two hours is a daunting task and Pearl Jam Twenty nearly pulls it off.

The film, which airs tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS and is available on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 24, is the most definitive look at Pearl Jam’s career to date but it gets that title by default since the notoriously private group lets very few into its inner circle, which means there is no competition.

This is where director Cameron Crowe comes into play. Crowe got access to the band early in its career through his friendship with the group which dates back to its infancy in the early 90s. Of course it also doesn’t hurt that he was married to Nancy Wilson of Heart, a band that has shared a manager with Pearl Jam for nearly two decades, for 22 years. But like his own autobiographical William Meyer character in Almost Famous, it’s apparent that Crowe’s relationship with the group has evolved from one where he once was ”The Enemy” to becoming a trusted friend, which both helps and hurts the film.

The documentary does an excellent job hitting all the major bullet points of the band’s career — the deaths of Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain and nine fans at the Roskilde Festival in 2000, its battle with TicketMaster, struggles to deal with its early success and its move away from commercial radio –  but from the perspective of an objective fan (if such a thing exists) there are a lot of missed opportunities.

One of those missed opportunities happens midway through the flick when Mike McCready tells Crowe that there was a moment when he thought the band was going to break up. McCready talks about a time when tensions in the band were high but there are no real details given about why and nothing is really said about the resolution of the conflict. The story comes across more like a footnote than a potentially powerful anecdote that could show the band’s vulnerability. The same thing happens when the TicketMaster scuffle is brought up. The story is told but there isn’t much of a reaction from anyone in the band about its resolution.

This makes it tough not to have mixed feelings about Crowe’s documentary if you are a fan of the band because while it is an amazing look at Pearl Jam, its lack of depth damages the final product. This makes viewers think that either Crowe purposefully didn’t ask the questions because of his friendship with the band, or he asked those questions but decided to leave the answers on  the cutting room floor because of his relationship with the Pearl Jam camp. Of course there’s also the possibility that there’s only so much that can be included in a two-hour film that’s meant to capture 20 years of storied band’s career.

Interestingly, Crowe interviews all band members individually and not together and the only person interviewed for the film who isn’t in Pearl Jam that gets significant camera time is Chris Cornell. Aside from Crowe and Cornell, the only other voices that are allowed to tell the band’s story are those of Neil Young (who wasn’t interviewed for the film, rather Crowe used archived soundbites) and Pearl Jam archivist Kevin Shuss who gets no screen time.

The lack of outside voices and lack of joint interviews with band members doesn’t allow for the band’s collective personality to shine through. It also doesn’t allow for any one band member to stand out much apart from his bandmates. Crowe’s approach lets the band to tell its story in its own words but with such an acclaimed group outside thoughts might have given the film some of that sorely missing depth.

Throughout Pearl Jam Twenty Crowe seems to be aware that when it comes to a band like Pearl Jam it’s nearly impossible to tell the entire story in a two-hour documentary. Lots of things gets glanced over such as McCready’s battle with Chron’s disease, the band’s relationship with its fans, its multiple political and charitable causes, its revolving cast of drummers and stories behind significant songs in the Pearl Jam catalog. This leaves those looking for an insightful documentary disappointed.

But anyone looking for a Pearl Jam primer, or who wants to see some fantastic rare footage of the band throughout its career, is going love Pearl Jam Twenty. In fact, the live footage from early and late in the band’s career is where the crux of the documentary’s emotion lies (check out the clip of “Better Man” above). This is a great testament to the band because it allows the film do something the Pearl Jam has been doing its entire career by letting the group’s music speak for the five members of Pearl Jam. However, this is a documentary, not a concert film.

Speaking of rare footage, what the film lacks in depth it makes up for in its clips from the band’s extensive archives. Crowe dug through more than 1,200 hours of live performances, interviews and home movies to make up the bulk of the film. Some of the highlights include a youthful Vedder playfully wrestling on stage with Chris Cornell, the band’s embarrassing performance at MTV’s Singles party and the exact moment in Pearl Jam’s career when Vedder turns from shy, reluctant frontman into a fierce, outspoken showman.

For all its flaws Pearl Jam Twenty is still a joy to watch. By deciding to show a broad overview of the band — albeit by sacrificing the potential for the film to have a lot more personality and heart — the film is able to showcase Pearl Jam’s finest moments, which often happen on stage. By the end of the film viewers are left with a life-affirming feeling of triumph due to perseverance of Pearl Jam. It’s the exact feeling felt by anyone who has been swept up by the band’s powerful live performances, which means Crowe effectively capture the essence of Pearl Jam on film.

Pearl Jam Twenty airs tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS.

Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 13 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and former editor of the defunct music site Ear Candy.