Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe’s affectionate look at the Seattle band’s first two decades (airing at 9 p.m. Friday on WFYI), turns out to be a lot like the group’s career to date: genius in the beginning, lagging in the second half and then rallying for a rousing push forward.
The film touches on most everything that’s been important to Pearl Jam’s career. So within the hour and 50 minutes, we revisit the Seattle grunge scene and the creation of the band (made possible by the death of charismatic Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood), its meteoric rise, the inevitable backlash, the Neil Young project, the fight with Ticketmaster, winning a Grammy, Andy Rooney grousing about grunge, the parade of drummers, nine fans trampled at a Danish festival in 2000, its social activism, and how fans flock to Pearl Jam shows because there’s never the same set list twice. (For those requiring more blow-by-blow details, Simon & Schuster has issued a beautiful companion book.)
But really, this documentary centers around three important points — the luck of getting Eddie Vedder to complete the lineup; Pearl Jam’s insistence on doing things its own way, even when that proved unpopular and perhaps antagonistic; and, of course, the music.
Ah, the music. Twenty is filled with stirring rare footage, including a version of “Alive” from Dec. 22, 1990, Pearl Jam’s second show ever. By that point, this was already, incredibly, a fully finished unit.
Among the many tunes we’re privy to hear, there’s footage of the band writing “Daughter” (initially called “Brother”) on a tour bus, an energetic and emotional version of the Mother Love Bone song “Crown of Thorns” and the night in 2003 when they were booed at New York’s Nassau Coliseum while performing “Bushleager” and mocking George W. Bush.
Crowe has been around the band since its beginning, so he knows the highs and lows, what to include and what to gloss over, when to tell a linear story and when it’s OK to jump ahead. (He should have glossed over Stone Gossard's relatively pointless look at Pearl Jam memorabilia.) Throughout, he does a masterful job juxtaposing then and now footage, giving early interviews and recent ones equal presence.
It becomes clear that while the band members’ weight, hairstyles and energy levels have changed, these five guys still believe in the mission. Maybe Vedder doesn’t swing from the lighting rigs anymore, and Gossard, Jeff Ament and Mike McCready aren’t careening around the stage like human bumper cars the way they used to. But the band’s vitality and the fans’ love remains intact.
We see that especially at the end, during a 2010 clip from a New York concert where the entire audience sings the opening verse of “Better Man” with Vedder accompanying them on guitar. You can’t help but smile watching that.
Twenty is also notable for what it teaches us about young bands and their need for a support system. One of the interview subjects in the film is Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who was an integral part of Pearl Jam, introducing Vedder to the rest of the band. Cornell and all the members of Pearl Jam talk about how Seattle bands supported each other and created a scene that became, for a time, the focal point of American rock music.
From those days, Nirvana is long gone, Soundgarden comes and goes, but Pearl Jam remains standing. Crowe salutes them with Twenty, and they deserve every bit of that recognition.