Review: Crowe’s fan-friendly Pearl Jam documentary
Friday, September 23, 2011
Moviegoers still lusting for the long male manes of “The Last of the Mohicans” finally have a movie that collects an equally distinguished array of locks.
In “Pearl Jam Twenty,” Cameron Crowe’s fan-friendly retrospective documentary of the band, the long-haired glory of the early 1990s’ Seattle rock scene is in full display. There are certainly more astute observations to make about the film and the band, but nevertheless: My, the hair.
It’s a reminder that the early ‘90s was indeed a long time ago. This was when guitars were still fashionable, selling-out was a concern for bands (today, simply selling is the real worry), MTV was a force in music, and it was all happening in Seattle.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for the era going around, and “Pearl Jam Twenty” (which is being released in theaters but will air on PBS in October) comes at the same time as 20th anniversary feting of “Nevermind,” the opus from Seattle’s other ‘90s legend: Nirvana.
Whereas Nirvana’s story is brief and tragic, Pearl Jam’s is long and largely heart-warming.
Crowe has a history with the band, having been a music journalist (an occupation he chronicled in his “Almost Famous”) and a Seattle resident around the time Pearl Jam formed. His “Singles” (1992) depicted the grunge scene of Seattle and even included a memorable cameo from Pearl Jam.
Early in the film, Crowe narrates this personal history, and makes obvious his enthusiasm for the music, as he says, “that came from guys who stayed indoors a lot.” On the whole, though, he recedes from the film, relying on old performance footage, old band interviews and his intimate sit-downs with the band’s members.
To be sure, this is a loving portrait of Pearl Jam, and one with almost no outside voices to contextualize the band’s accomplishment. Crowe has described it as his ode to the Who film, Jeff Stein’s “The Kids Are Alright,” the great, pure documentary of mostly performance footage. Crowe doesn’t manage to tell Pearl Jam’s story as simply, instead mixing concerts with talking heads.
The film covers the forming of Pearl Jam out of the ashes of Mother Love Bone; the group’s early camaraderie with Soundgarden; their meteoric rise with their debut album, “Ten”; Kurt Cobain’s criticism of the band; the mentorship and collaboration of Neil Young; their fight against Ticketmaster; the tragedy of the Roskilde Festival in 2000, where nine fans were crushed while the band played; and the group’s less remarkable second decade of endurance and survival.
The thread to Pearl Jam is the band’s continual grasping for a conscientious ethic: trying to stay honest in a music industry that doesn’t make it easy. Cameron shows Eddie Vedder, in an early concert, exhorting an abusive security guard. Vedder was also an early advocate of vinyl, rather than CDs. The band questions the media’s portrayal of itself, after (against their wishes) landing on the cover of Time magazine. Their plight against Ticketmaster (in which they argued the concert promoter had a monopoly on the country’s largest concert venues) urged a generation of bands to reconsider their ways of doing business.
Cobain, too, pushed them down this path. His suggestion that Pearl Jam was too mainstream clearly stung the group, though the documentary is quick to show Cobain withdrawing his comments. (One of the more striking footage-finds is Vedder and Cobain slow-dancing happily together at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.)
After Cobain killed himself, Pearl Jam continued to be haunted by his myth. Stone Gossard, the band’s rhythm guitarist and integral songwriter (who’s easily the documentary’s best and most humble voice), acknowledges: “He made us think about everything we did.”
But “Pearl Jam Twenty” is also a reminder that before Pearl Jam was so self-aware, it was an incredible, raw burst of energy. The band’s sound was established just days after forming. In early shows, Vedder scaled stages and leapt into crowds with abandon. Before Vedder was vaguely mystical and a little inscrutable, he was boyish, smiley and uninhibited.
Vedder doesn’t come through any clearer after “Pearl Jam Twenty,” but the band’s journey remains a thoroughly entertaining one. Any enterprise like this is inherently self-congratulatory, but the film is best considered from Crowe’s perspective: that of a fan.
This is the director’s second music documentary this year, and is certainly the better of the two. (His “The Union,” about Elton John and Leon Russell’s collaboration, played at the Tribeca Film Festival.) After the disappointing “Vanilla Sky” and “Elizabethtown,” he’s due to make his return to fiction film with the December release of “We Bought a Zoo,” a family film with Matt Damon.
It’s promising that Crowe has returned to the director’s chair. But for him, there’s little separating fan and artist.
“Pearl Jam Twenty,” a Abramorama release, is not rated but contains explicit language. Running time: 120 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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