If you’ve been around for the past two decades, there’s a good chance you are familiar with the band Pearl Jam. Likely it is also that you have heard the classic story of a band whose rise to fame accelerates too quickly, resulting in a blindsided superstardom and towards the inevitable result of tragedy (let it be applied towards substances and/or dismemberment of personal relationships). Does the story accompany the subject? Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
Into the picture walks Cameron Crowe, established as both a successfully offbeat director (Almost Famous, Jerry McGuire) and former journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. A dabble in both spheres (along with being among the band’s inner circle when they formed) certainly qualifies Crowe as a contender for telling the story of Pearl Jam’s complicated yet lasting bond, a task which he grippingly accomplishes in the new documentary Pearl Jam Twenty.
The film traces the band’s early beginnings towards the chaos that ensued after being catapulted into celebrity status, their resulting digression from the spotlight in hopes of preserving the band’s values, and the making of an everlasting bond between the five members. Through grainy footage and raw recordings, we are given the ultimate perspective into Pearl Jam’s past as we are led through backstage antics and footage of a young Eddie Vedder singing timidly onstage as he notices violence ensuing in the crowd of their first performances. While some moments progress towards tragedy and dark problems, the band’s ability to learn from and adjust to fame work to make up the larger narrative: the premature development of a genuine rock band that both defined and survived the Grunge era.
The first 30 minutes of the film are terrific. The archived shots seemed to be nostalgic for many fans in the packed Alamo Drafthouse advanced screening (nearly half were uniformed in aged Pearl Jam tour tees), but proved to be more of a history lesson for me. Footage of Chris Cornell recounting his initial infatuation with Eddie Vedder preceding a clip of Kurt Cobain calling his “too mainstream” illustrated a division within the Seattle grunge scene I hadn’t previously known. If Cameron Crowe taught a college course in History of Rock, I would certainly be the first to enroll.
The rest of the film kept my attention for the most part, although some parts seemed out of place in the overall context of the story. Breaking off in the middle to accompany each band member in a “day-in-the-life-of” tour was an appropriate update in the midst of their trials, yet somewhat distracting from the timeline I thought had developed. Nonetheless, such digressions seem to only illustrate further the band’s attempt to stay true to their art, demonstrated clearly by Stone Gossard’s not-so-celebrity abode (the man keeps his Grammy in a dusty basement corner!)
In the end, the band makes it out alive in what one could call an antithesis to a “Behind The Music”, seeing they are still performing and well. Crowe gives great insight into the life of a band whose members are not perfect, but still successfully maintain the Grunge legacy whose foundations have since perished.
About the Review: Kaitlyn Roche is a third-year student at the University of Texas at Austin and currently works in the Communications department of KLRU. She has contributed to online and print publications such as A.V. Club, San Antonio Express-News and Verbicide Magazine.