There’s a moment in Cameron Crowe’s anniversary documentary where two British newsreaders are joking about having no idea who Pearl Jam are, and given that they’re a Seattle rock band who have only touched the UK Top 10 once, perhaps it’s not that surprising that, even now, they aren’t particularly a household name here. So how come the screening (in a large screen at a multiplex) in Salford Quays was virtually a sell-out? The answers lie within.
Crowe was an obvious director for a project like this, having been involved with the band since the Singles film and soundtrack, and being one of the few people in the movie industry who understands the music world as well, as he used to be a music journalist. Of course, his close connections to the band did mean that there was a risk that Pearl Jam Twenty would be too gushing, and it’s true that this is a film that will appear more to fans than it will to non-fans, but that doesn’t mean that it pulls any punches.
That Pearl Jam can almost sell out a cinema in a UK region that they’ve only played three times in two decades says a lot about the dedication they inspire in their fanbase, and by the end of the film it’s easy to see why. They may have been plagued in their early days by snipes from Kurt Cobain and sections of the media that suggested they were commercialising grunge, but everything they have done since has been a lesson in integrity, passion and how to be ‘the band who lasted’ in a scene that saw so many tragic implosions.
Crowe’s film is bookmarked by three tragic events in the lifetime of the band, starting with the death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood, a hugely talented extroverted rock star who seemed destined for the big time, but wasn’t long for this world. The fallout from his death is dealt with well, with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell (almost a sixth member of Pearl Jam on the basis of this film) adding his memories of his former room-mate and describing the incident as the moment that the Seattle scene lost its innocence.
Another of those moments comes four years later with another talented singer’s death, and you can’t talk about Pearl Jam without mentioning Cobain, who talked up a rivalry with Eddie Vedder, but is shown here describing his affection for him, something that modern-day Vedder and his band-mates certainly share. If anything made sure that they stayed honest, it was those jibes from the Nirvana star that Stone Gossard admits has had an effect on many of their decisions in the years since. One of the sweetest moments of the film is a video shot by Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson of Vedder and Cobain dancing together backstage at an awards ceremony.
The final tragic scene comes halfway through the Twenty years, with the Roskilde disaster seeing nine fans crushed during a Pearl Jam set at a Danish festival in June 2000, something that still clearly haunts them, particularly Vedder. But while they might have a reputation as a gloomy, whining, over-earnest bunch, there’s plenty of humour here, with a Spinal Tap-referencing sequence about their ability to lose drummers in the first half of their career, a roaring-drunken performance at an MTV party, and a lovely bit where Gossard walks around his house trying to find any pieces of Pearl Jam memorabilia, coming up with only a dirty coffee cup and a dusty Grammy.
He jokes that he doesn’t need to keep any merchandise because bassist Jeff Ament keeps everything, so as long as he can stay friends with him, he can just pop round to his house and look at it all there. It’s hardly an earthshattering moment, but there’s lots of similar ones that are really nice to see from a band who have spent much of their career running away from the bright lights and media frenzy that descended upon them when they hit the big time. They all come across as intelligent, sensible and down-to-earth people, particularly Ament, who seems totally unaffected by the chaos that fame has brought to his life, having grown up in a small town that didn’t even have a record store.
But obviously Vedder is at the heart of everything, whether putting himself in mortal danger by leaping from stage rigging in those heady early days or enraging sections of his own fanbase by dancing around onstage in a sparkly suit and a George Bush mask. His struggles in adapting from surf bum to international voice of a generation are well detailed and for someone who has received so much criticism and ridicule, he’s still a very sensitive, warm and charismatic man and there’s some genuinely lovely moments, like when he describes his first meeting with hero Pete Townshend and being told that The Who star has been waiting ages to meet HIM. Even years later, this clearly still baffles and amazes him and that’s nice to see.
Crowe might be too close to the band to be truly objective about them, but this has its benefits in that they clearly feel comfortable in his hands and drop their guard more in the interviews than they would with anyone else. But, it’s the fans that they have the closest relationship with, and the happy ending to Pearl Jam Twenty is all about their position as a band whose days as trend-setters are behind them, but rarely let their fanbase down and have evolved into one of the most predictably unpredictable live acts around, often picking their setlists 10 minutes before going on stage, based on Vedder’s ‘feeling’ for what the crowd will be wanting to hear.
Pearl Jam are the band who came out of the ‘grunge scene’ relatively unscathed and have keep on going, no matter what gets thrown in their path. Their honesty, integrity, humanity and humour all shine through in this film and those are the reasons why they’ve maintained such a huge and loyal fanbase. Cameron Crowe captures all of it and one of the highlights comes at the end as a Madison Square Garden crowd roar along to the lyrics of Better Man while Vedder stands back, seemingly genuinely overwhelmed by it, even after all of these years. That’s why Crowe loves Pearl Jam, why I love Pearl Jam and why I loved this film.
Pearl Jam's twentieth anniversary is being celebrated in style thanks largely to the efforts of director Cameron Crowe, whose documentary Pearl Jam Twenty is released this week. He's also compiled the soundtrack, a double album of live music from the film and some other rarities, so I've decided to do a track-by-track review while I listen to it