If it's not completely obvious, "Pearl Jam Twenty" is the name of the new retrospective documentary about the first twenty years of influential Seattle rock band Pearl Jam. But, as directed by Cameron Crowe, whose mind operates on another level of meta-textual cross-indexed pop cultural awareness, it's also a nod to the name of the first Pearl Jam album, Ten (the number of former New Jersey Nets point guard Mookie Blaylock, who the band was originally named after). In a weird way, the title is also evocative of the way the movie has been put together – unlike most standard rock band documentaries, its full of personal detail (Crowe was in Seattle at the time as a young music journalist) and wonderfully atypical shifts in tone and style. Those fearful of a feature-length "Behind the Music" can table those anxieties. This is the real deal with lots of surprising texture.
Opening with a brief biographical voice over by Crowe, the documentary explains that he had come to live in Seattle in the mid-80s and took part in this collective experience – a living organism, comprised of separate but similar bands (ones that genuinely liked and encouraged each other), all at the same time. This segues to an abbreviated history of Mother Love Bone, a band that preceded Pearl Jam. Mother Love Bone was led by a charismatic singer named Andy Wood who died tragically within days of the release of the band's debut album. The surviving members compiled a lyrics-free demo that somehow wound up in the hands of a young Californian named Eddie Vedder. He recorded over the demo and sent it back to the band. The rest, as they say, is (rock n' roll) history.
Now, this information could have been presented in a coldly clinical style – a then b then c. But here Crowe warmly (and wisely) makes things much more personal, presenting Vedder, in an interview recorded for the film, with the exact demo tape, his first name painted on the cassette with White-Out. It's moments like these that set "Pearl Jam Twenty" apart from the typical rock doc.
From the start, Pearl Jam were a sensation. And with an uncanny attention to detail, Crowe charts their meteoric rise, a concurrent trajectory shared with fellow superstar grunge bands Nirvana and Soundgarden (frontman Chris Cornell is interviewed throughout) and covered extensively in the mainstream media. In a hilarious bit, Crowe reruns a commentary by "60 Minutes" warhorse Andy Rooney, wondering why the kids are acting so gloomy, suggesting another Vietnam might straighten them out.
It's with effortless ease that Crowe cuts between concert footage, both contemporary and historical (mined from a variety of sources), new interviews with the band members and their close associates, old interviews with the band, music videos, and pretty much anything else Crowe has dug up and finds interesting. The style is effervescent and endlessly fun, and at a hearty 120 minutes, the movie gallops along. In a particularly memorable bit, lead singer Vedder talks about how the band will never make a conceptual video, since they'd rather do anything live. Crowe then smash cuts directly to the "Jeremy" video, which chronicled a school shooting and was responsible for even more notoriety and attention lumped on the band. Another wonderful bit very quickly runs down the band's unlucky history with drummers (until Matt Cameron, late of Soundgarden, joined the band in the late 90s), interspersing the footage with clips from "This Is Spinal Tap" (Crowe couldn't resist!)
The only problem (and it's a fairly sizable one) is that, through this unorthodox approach to the band's biography, you wish that Crowe would either slow down or shift focus slightly. For instance, there's footage of the "Jeremy" video but nothing about the subsequent media fall-out, calling out the song for glorifying school shootings and harping on the evocative video. Also, for a movie that references the title of the band's first album, their discography is negligibly alluded to, even though several of the records were touchstones for an entire generation. Their important sophomore album Vs in particular seemed like it was a part of every young music fan's burgeoning CD collection -- upon its release it sold 950,378 copies, setting the then-record for most copies of an album sold in its first week -- but little full attention is given to that disc. Also interesting, and never discussed, was their move away from the major labels and into self-releasing with 2009's New Wave-tinged Backspacer (released the same year as Cornell's more outwardly pop-friendly Scream, which received less kind notices). Also, curiously, Crowe's own film "Singles" (which features Pearl Jam) is only given cursory consideration.
Part of what makes "Pearl Jam Twenty" so engaging is that the band members seem to be genuinely decent guys who really do get along well. Sure, they've had their disagreements, there have been uneasy shifts in power, and at least one band member talks about his battles with substance abuse. But they're so good-natured, and woven not only by friendship and music but by politics and the belief that they're doing something both positive and unique. Some of the most bracing, exciting stuff comes in the form of footage of the band's very public disagreement with the business practices of concert conglomerate Ticketmaster over what they deemed as unfairly inflated ticket prices. It's particularly funny seeing the band testifying before a judicial body about the outrageousness of $30 tickets. Isn't that the average surcharge now?
Equally electric is recent footage of the band playing an anti-Bush screed in front of a group of angry listeners, Vedder prancing onstage in a plastic Bush mask and, despite the antagonism, continuing throughout the whole song. It's a good metaphor for the band themselves – undeterred by negative sentiment, they'll keep doing what they're doing. And 20 years later, people are still listening. We can't wait for "Pearl Jam Forty." [B+]