By Christopher Campbell | Spout October 26, 2011 at 7:38AM
Before seeing Cameron Crowe's "Pearl Jam Twenty," I was all set on naming "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" the best music documentary of 2011. But how do I weigh these two films against each other? My first thought for comparison has to do with something I read (and of course can no longer locate) of "Beats" director Michael Rapaport saying that he made the film about ATCQ, not for them. Sure he loves that group and didn't want to (nor did he) produce a negative portrait of them, but it features enough objective balance (including some unfavorable elements) to have brought it a controversial (initial) lack of support from Q-Tip. "PJ20" may not necessarily be for Pearl Jam more than about them, but it feels a lot more fine-tuned to be complimentary to the band and its twenty-year existence.
Yet it doesn't feature the same level of cleanliness seen with Martin Scorsese's recent and also technically exceptional doc "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," which was made under the protective co-production of Olivia Harrison. Maybe it's that Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Mike McCready are fully aware and accepting of the ups and downs of their lives and career, much of which hasn't exactly been secret anyway. Maybe there is bad behavior and bad comments that were left on the cutting room floor, but it would have to be really awful stuff, since there's plenty of embarrassing and difficult footage involving drunk performances (such as an out of control MTV party for Crowe's film "Singles"), being booed by a crowd while playing "Bushleaguer" in 2003 and talk of nearly breaking up in the late 90s due to disconnect between Vedder and the other members.
Of course, who would or could make a modern-day "Cocksucker Blues" anyway? And who would want to watch such a thing? I don't mean to be skeptical about the positive perspective Crowe has with the film. It's both expected and respectful and not any less a terrific history of these artists and the times in which they've grown and thrived and struggled and lasted. I can't really know if "PJ20" is completely the definitive film about Pearl Jam (so far), but it is a dense and lengthy documentary full of astonishingly thorough archive material (courtesy of official filmographer-archivists, fans, media and other recordists, all of whom are given proper, individually-showcasing credit at the end), and I feel fully caught up to date with a group I stopped paying close attention to after only five of those twenty years. Of course, there are a few significant deleted scenes on the DVD (one making up for bare mention of touring organist Boom Gaspar), so the film can't be totally definitive. So I just want to be wary of coming away from the film too excited about my personal reunion with them and wholly celebrating their integrity and magnificent eminence, or whatever.
Speaking of subjectivity, one aspect I found odd about "PJ20" is how it begins with a first-person perspective from Crowe. Okay, he did have a certain attachment to the Seattle scene, which he covered as a journalist, and has known Pearl Jam for most of its life, and I immediately accepted this personal narration from the journalist/artist making the film. But this perspective is not consistent in the least, only returning now and again (including a single on-screen interview moment) when relevant, such as during the making of "Singles." The lack of definite, consistent voice made me wonder who or what the doc is ultimately for or about. Is it about Crowe and Pearl Jam, just Pearl Jam, for one or the other, for the fans, for those of us former fans who owe them our nostalgia and reinstated interest, for the band members' nostalgia, or simply for posterity?
(Perhaps the song featured in the new Crowe-directed music video below is a hint?)
Overall, it's primarily a "this is your life" kind of commemoration and tribute, but in the need to be comprehensive it is also quite lacking in a certain focal distinction, and this is especially noticeable when Crowe drops in clips from classic music docs like "Don't Look Back," "The Last Waltz" and "The Kids Are Alright." The band members acknowledge that they were inspired by artists like Hendrix, The Ramones and The Who but wanted to be their own thing. Maybe they've distinguished themselves, but I'm not positive that their big movie is particularly as significant as anything more than a very well-compiled look behind the music, cooperatively recollected by the band itself. Fitting as it is for a band that for so long had trouble finding and expressing their identity and what they were/are about, it's still a broad story. Then again, while I've continually celebrated "Beats, Rhymes & Life" for telling a rather familiar and universal story about the music business, I recognize and appreciate that Pearl Jam's story, as depicted in "PJ20," is so specific to them and the course they've taken.
At the same time, it's also hardly a deeply biographical profile of any or all of the individuals in the band, especially in contemporary terms. The current definers for Gossard and McCready, respectively, are the dog and baby sitting in the foreground of their testimonial shots, while Ament takes Crowe/us to see his hometown in Montana for one of a few present-time sequences (or is that also archive? I'm not completely sure -- also, there's more of it in a deleted scene). As for Vedder, who knows what he's personally up to or where his mind's at? Of course, this is a film about two decades of the band as a whole, not as a group of independent musicians united under a name, even if we are given nibbles of Vedder and Ament's backgrounds here or, there, a short tour of Gossard's home in search of memorabilia (another deleted scene: a tour of Vedder's house). But for all the political statements and other angry young man type demonstrations documented on stage and off through the years, there's surprisingly little in the way of collective or individual reflection on many of these statements or current opinions on the industry, media or government, past or present. Also, these guys are interviewed in such separated, isolated positions from each other that it would aesthetically appear to be about them as independent persons.
Wait, didn't I begin this review claiming it might be the best music documentary of the year? The fact that it's keeping me contemplating its elements and questioning its point(s) makes it great in my book, because I prefer films that stimulate as much as they entertain. But also on a purely objective stance it is one of the best recent docs of its genre in terms of constructing a fully engaging story. Part of this is due to high production value from a prominent filmmaker and music expert, though I tip most of my hat to everyone who filmed Pearl Jam over the years so "PJ20" can be as visual in its record as it is, thereby allowing the band's history to be shown simultaneous to its being retroactively told. I suspect this distinction won't be too significant as more and more bands are so fully and collaboratively recorded, however. I guess it's one of the best music docs of the year because at the moment there aren't enough that are so incredibly intensive.
"Pearl Jam Twenty" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: Pearl Jam; "Hype!"; music history; "End of a Century: The Story of the Ramones"