This film is essentially a two-hour love letter to one of the greatest rock bands of the last two decades on their 20th anniversary, directed by one of the most beloved rock journalists and filmmakers of our time. This is quite simply a movie for the fans. It almost assuredly wouldn't have been as effective in any other hands but Crowe's. A rock journalist and contributing editor for Rolling Stone since the tender age of 18, as well as the director of popular films like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Say Anything," "Singles," "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous," Crowe has deep ties to Seattle and its legendary music scene.
Crowe moved to the Emerald City (home of his now ex-wife Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart) in the mid-'80s, as the legendary grunge scene was just burgeoning with bands like Green River and Mudhoney. Crowe is wise in paying tribute to Pearl Jam's true roots in the beginning of "Pearl Jam Twenty" highlighting the rise and fall of Mother Love Bone, the beloved Seattle band that included future Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard. The film shows some rare early live footage of Mother Love Bone and its tragic hero, lead singer Andrew Wood, who died suddenly of a heroin overdose in 1990 just before the band released its acclaimed debut album, "Apple."
It's fair to say that without Mother Love Bone, there would be no Pearl Jam, and Crowe digs deep with Gossard and Ament, as well as Soundgarden front-man Chris Cornell, who lived with Wood and was a close friend, getting them to open up and speak candidly about how Wood's death affected them. Crowe was known in his early days at Rolling Stone for being a reporter who was trusted by bands that trusted no one, getting them to show their true selves in ways that other reporters just couldn't. He succeeds in the same manner with these interviews.
It helps that Ament, Gossard and Vedder had worked with Crowe before, playing members of fictional Seattle band "Citizen Dick" along with Matt Dillon in Crowe's 1992 film "Singles." Crowe fell in love with the Seattle sound early on. It was so contrary to the music he grew up listening to in Southern California. In the film he describes it as "music made by guys who spent a lot of time indoors."
Much of the early part of the film casts Vedder, himself a Southern California surfer and musician, as the "new kid in town," joining the fledgling band at the invitation of Ament, Gossard and guitarist Mike McCready, who were intrigued by the voice they heard on his demo tape. Vedder appears painfully shy and uncomfortable, hiding behind his wall of hair onstage. But his voice was undeniable.
There is some fantastic coverage of early live shows after Vedder slowly became more confident in his lead role, wrestling onstage with Chris Cornell, climbing into the rafters at shows and diving into the crowd. The first half of the movie is by far the most compelling, particularly for fans of that early grunge scene.
The live performance footage is fantastic throughout the film, and appears on the accompanying soundtrack, including performances of the band playing the Mother Love Bone anthem "Crown of Thorns" at their 10th anniversary show at the MGM Grand, "Release" in Verona, Italy in 2006 and an intense "Why Go" from 1992 in Hamburg, Germany among others.
The later half of the film following Pearl Jam's meteoric rise to stardom and their clear discomfort with it focuses on the band's major milestones and turning points: from their public battle with concert giant Ticketmaster over unfair ticket prices to the tragic death of nine fans during their set at Denmark's annual Roskilde Festival in 2000, an event that nearly tore the band apart in their utter despair.
Pearl Jam didn't tear apart, however, and they remain to this day one of the top-selling and top-grossing rock acts playing. Through these interviews, they seem in a more contented, comfortable place now, no longer the wild-eyed young punks, but grown, middle-aged men and fathers. Vedder may no longer swing from the rafters, but he can still command a stage, as can the rest of the band including original members Gossard, Ament, and McCready and former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron (the band's fifth drummer). Declares Gossard, "It's very Spinal Tap of us to have that many drummers."
Although Crowe's film certainly doesn't try to hide the band's flaws, it has a narrow perspective that some may find too sentimental. Sentimental it may be; but it is also sincere. Having been a fan since the very beginning (I saw Pearl Jam for the first time 20 years ago as an opener for the Red Hot Chili Peppers), I appreciated it for its sentimentality.
Along with the band members, I too felt wistful recalling those early days when long hair and flannel shirts ruled and seeing footage that brought back so many great memories of my misspent youth. Judging by the cheers and applause in the theater as the credits rolled, I am not the only one. Pearl Jam may be the band that most clearly defines Generation X, or at least the one that managed somehow to stay together and persevere.
If you didn't get the opportunity to catch "Pearl Jam Twenty" at the theater, you can watch it on October 21, when it airs on PBS as part of the "American Masters" series, or check it out on DVD October 24. If you can't wait until then, a Deluxe Limited Edition Bluray is on sale now.