By Jay Powell // Staff Writer
If grunge music had its own Mount Rushmore, then Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam would be the images carved into the rock’s face.
While three of the four aforementioned groups have fizzled out into obscurity due to suicide (Nirvana), drug overdoses (Alice in Chains) or simply just getting sick of one another (Soundgarden), Pearl Jam has kept a strong following and has performed and recorded music consistently for 20 years.
They managed to shed the often-labeled “grunge” tag, and became a band who not only over time evolved into their own, but also managed to play by their own rules. They have been able to hold on to one of the most important things someone can have in the entertainment industry– integrity.
2011 has been quite the year for the band. With reissues of prior-released albums now in stores, a festival currently in the works and a brand new documentary directed by long-time friend and fan Cameron Crowe, you could say 2011 is the year of the Pearl.
The film, Pearl Jam Twenty, comprises more than 1200 hours of unseen footage, including brand new interviews and sheds new light on a band that has experienced struggles with fame, tragedy and controversy. It gives its viewers a glimpse into what life has been like for these rock icons over the course of the past two decades and succeeds in pleasing fans once again by showing that they are human just like the rest of us.
Whether it is guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Amentstanding outside a Seattle venue in the late ‘80s trying desperately to get to a show by The Cult, or dealing with the 2000 tragedy where nine fans were killed at the Roskilde music festival, fans got a better sense of the band through these glimpses.
The film begins by taking us through those early years when Gossard and Ament were trying to find their sense of purpose as musicians. It was through the tragedy of their Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood’s death and the chance of finding singer Eddie Vedder and lead guitarist Mike McCready that Pearl Jam was born.
What makes the documentary work is Crowe’s long association with the band as both a friend and a fan. Crowe cast some of the band’s members back in 1992 in his Seattle-based movie Singles, bringing an extraordinary sense of honesty from the members in the interviews.
For two hours, viewers are transported to another time when things were simpler, before iPhones and Facebook, and when MTV still played music. We see footage of the band members whipping their long hair on stage as they belt out early hits like “Alive” and “Porch” and Vedder climbing high up on scaffolding before plunging into the crowd. The viewer comes away with a sense of the magic floating in the air at the time and the feeling everyone had that something big was happening in Seattle.
The earliest footage of the band was taken from its second show, where we see a shy Vedder sporting a Cramps T-shirt, hiding behind his disheveled mass of hair while he copes pre-performance jitters. It wasn’t until a later incident in which he spotted a security guard acting violently towards a fan that he eventually broke out of his shell and took a stand.
Since then, Vedder and Pearl Jam haven’t been afraid to shy away from speaking their mind against politicians and corporations, creating controversy for the band. Much of the film’s latter half is spent covering the ongoing feud the group had with Ticketmaster, which they claimed were charging too much in ticket prices.
In one segment, the camera follows Gossard around his home in search of memorabilia he has kept of the band throughout the years. He discovers a Grammy that the band won in the mid ‘90s. It was tucked away in a dark corner in his basement, all but forgotten.
“You can tell what I think of the Grammys,” he says.
The documentary accomplishes the fly-on-the-wall perspective Pearl Jam fans have longed for. Of course there’s no way you could tell the whole story of 20 years in a mere two hours. That’s the equivalent of asking a person to summarize “War and Peace” in a couple of sentences.
More time could have been spent on certain areas of the group’s career for sure, but Crowe achieved his agenda for the project– to let the band tell their story while giving fans a lot of rare, interesting footage to watch.
Pearl Jam Twenty is a treat for the fans who have stuck by the band all along and for those who were picked up along the way. The film is the group’s love letter to its fans. That’s partly because it was made by a fan, but also because the fans are what has kept their dream alive for this long.
It has something for anyone who has ever liked the band. It shows a human side to their story, which is what the band has strived to maintain throughout their career.