Pearl Jam Twenty debuts on American Masters tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern. Here’s Noel Murray’s review of the documentary, which was published during its theatrical run.
Filmmaker Cameron Crowe knew the guys in Pearl Jam long before there was a Pearl Jam, from back when Crowe and the musicians who formed the backbone of the Seattle scene were all idealistic, enthusiastic young artists. Crowe’s documentary Pearl Jam Twenty features footage from as far back as the band’s Mother Love Bone and Mookie Blaylock days, tracking Eddie Vedder’s replacement of MLB drug casualty Andrew Wood, and his evolution from being so shy that he’d only sing with his hair in his face to being capable of holding a festival crowd rapt with a piercing stare. Twenty then follows the band’s story as it becomes one of the biggest concert attractions in the world, then settles into a smaller, in some ways more comfortable, level of success. Crowe clearly knows this world well, both from his personal interactions with the band and from his years on tour buses as a Rolling Stone journalist.
What makes Pearl Jam Twenty a little better than the average fan-friendly documentary is that Crowe focuses on the more significant parts of the Pearl Jam story: not how the group wrote “Alive,” but how it’s struggled with maintaining artistic credibility while selling millions. Crowe gets into Pearl Jam’s fight with Ticketmaster, which marked a turning point in the band’s reputation among the alt-rock crowd, and he covers the tragedy of some of its fans being crushed to death at a Danish rock festival, which was a turning point in Pearl Jam’s sense of how big it wanted to be. Structurally, the film resembles the Rush bio-doc Beyond The Lighted Stage, which is a fine blueprint for Crowe to follow.
Twenty is still first and foremost for Pearl Jam diehards, who’ll be the most likely to appreciate the sincerity with which the band members pay tribute to each other. But even people who don’t know Pearl Jam well—or those who are outright skeptics—should be able to appreciate what Crowe reveals about its longevity. As Vedder has disappeared further into a “soulful, activist weirdo” public persona (halfway between Johnny Depp and Michael Stipe) he’s maintained his fraternity with his bandmates, who’ve all bonded over their love of sports, their commitment to speaking their minds, and their faith in rock ’n’ roll. How else could a band that’s wanted to be both as big as The Who and as street-level as Fugazi have survived for so long?