Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty

Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, Neil Young
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Airing as part of PBS's American Masters series and available October 24th on DVD, Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's new documentary chronicling the journey of America's greatest alternative rock band, is all about the blurry line between art and entertainment. It's one group's tireless, twenty year quest to not "sell out." And even though those within the music industry and even many fans detest the term, count me among those who believe that "selling out" is real and that many bands do it. Remaining relevant in a constantly changing industry while continuing to grow as an artist is a delicate balance that seems almost impossible to achieve so they shouldn't be begrudged for using whatever means they can to stay afloat. But there's a reason this movie isn't about any of them and Pearl Jam's the last band standing from the early 90's Seattle grunge movement. They played by their own rules and refused to compromise, in the process redefining their group's identity and what they wanted to accomplish. Few could have guessed when they first broke that Pearl Jam would be running a marathon instead of a sprint, somehow meaning more now than they did then. You'd probably assume I'm a huge fan, but the truth is that even my admiration for them had to grow slowly over time, to the point that it was shock for me to discover just a couple of years ago that their music took up as much space on my ipod as Led Zeppelin's or Bob Dylan's. This film does a great job capturing why and explaining how their music has a cumulative effect that can't be measured by merely hit singles or album sales.

Crowe starts at the very beginning, taking us to pre-1990 Seattle and showing how Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard formed the band from the remnants of Mother Love Bone after the death of their charismatic frontman Andy Wood. Credited as the founding father of the 90's alt rock explosion, a lot of time is spent discussing Wood's influence (accompanied with some mind-blowing archival footage) before getting to the addition of a shy, distant lead singer named Eddie Vedder, who along with Ament, Gossard, guitarist Mike McCready and a revolving door of various drummers would make up Pearl Jam. Documented is the chart-topping early success of their debut album Ten, which spawned a huge hit single ("Alive") and a groundbreaking music video ("Jeremy") just as Vedder was starting to come out of his shell as a frontman. After forming a tight bond with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, appearing in Crowe's 1991 Gen-X film Singles, jamming with Neil Young and being thrust into a "feud" with Kurt Cobain in the press, the band's popularity grew, along with accusations that they were selling out. It was a stinging allegation echoed by Cobain and one Vedder took very seriously, haunting him throughout his career and informing the band's future. Refusing to release singles or release videos, the band famously went head-to-head with Ticketmaster for their unreasonably high prices in 1994, becoming the faces of a major anti-trust lawsuit. Facing tragedy and becoming more involved in political activism in the following decade, they've managed to persevere, outlasting their contemporaries by rejecting fame and establishing themselves as an unpredictable cult band.

They'll be those who criticize Crowe for spending so much time on the band's formative days in Seattle, perhaps at the expense of the some of their post-2000 work, which is admittedly skimmed over with some excellent live footage. But try as you might to explain it away, where Pearl Jam eventually ended up is very much entangled in what happened then, as the specters of Wood and Cobain seem to hang over the band throughout, a constant voice in Vedder's ear keeping them honest and focused. When Eddie performs Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns" as a tribute to Wood at their tenth anniversary concert in 2000 and it sounds every bit as Pearl Jam as any other Pearl Jam song (if not more so) it's clear why Crowe spends so much time on the early days. While Vedder never met Wood and was never really friends or enemies with Cobain (although lost footage of them slow dancing backstage at the MTV VMA's is perhaps Crowe's greatest find), you're still left with the impression that they're inseparable in music history. That influence manifests itself most in the second phase of their career which saw rock fall out of favor with the mainstream around the time they released 2000's Binaural (the first featuring Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron) and the tragic incident at Denmark's Roskilde Festival where nine fans were crushed to death rushing the stage. Rightfully, this is depicted as the defining event for the band and the moment they decided they would abandon all pretenses of what's defined as success or failure to instead make the music an experience for those loyal enough to have hung around.

It's only when Pearl Jam fell out of the public conciousness and rock's popularity took a nose dive that they grew into the band they were meant to be all along with their crazy live set lists, experimental sounds, bootleg cds and political activism. Of everything, I'm glad Crowe didn't dwell on the latter, electing instead to just show the clip of Vedder's infamous 2003 Nassau Coliseum performance of "Bu$hleaguer," in which he impaled a flaming President Bush mask on his mic stand, grossly misjudging the audience's reaction.  Political context aside, what's lost amongst the silliness of the event but shines through now is just how creepy and demonic the song is, as radical a departure from anything else they've previously done. Many recording artists have pushed politics into their music but they're are amongst the few to incorporate it in such a way that at least doesn't damage the work or detract from what they do. If an argument can be made that the second half of the feature isn't as in depth, it doesn't feel like anything that couldn't be supplemented with a couple of bonus interviews or clips on the special features. If I was slightly disappointed it didn't go on longer, it's not necessarily for a lack of depth, but just simply because I didn't want the thing to end. We do get some alone time with the other members and in what seems like an impromptu moment at home, Mike McCready confirms on acoustic guitar why "Given To Fly" is just about the most awesome PJ song there is.

What really sets this documentary apart from so many others isn't necessarily obvious in form or presentation, but rather in seeing the 90's music scene portrayed with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the 60's in documentaries like Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan: No Direction Home or his recent George Harrison film, Living in the Material World. Eddie Vedder emerges throughout this as a reclusive, almost Dylan-like figure in terms of his approach to his craft and denouncement of fame. With his unmistakable trademark baritone he's also always been criminally underrated as a vocalist, to the point that a legitimate case can be made for ranking him among rock's all-time greats. And that not enough people know that, or even know what Pearl Jam's done, is why this film feels so fresh. Watching the recent Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth it occurred to me that besides tracking that band's history, it also spent as much time promoting their latest album. And why not? Where else can they promote it? Hardly any radio stations play rock music. MTV doesn't play videos. They really did have to make a movie for the public to even just pay attention. Vedder, Dave Grohl and Chris Cornell are the only three guys left carrying the torch and for those lucky enough to have been alternative rock fans during that era, it's an emotional release seeing the journey treated with such respect by Crowe, who's the perfect director for the job. His movies have always existed to service the music, making it next to impossible to envision one without the other. This feels like the project that's been waiting on him and the fact that it plays as an unabashed love letter to the band, abandoning all objectivity, only increases the impact. Whether PJ20 will convert the uninitiated or those who never cared for Pearl Jam's music is anyone's guess, but it sure is a thrilling celebration of why that shouldn't matter.

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