Cameron Crowe is here at press tour to discuss his film “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which debuts on PBS’ “American Masters” on October 21. I got to see the film last night, and while we’re embargoed from discussing it in detail until September, I can say that I thought it was fantastic, and reminded me of how much I loved Pearl Jam back when I was in college in the early-mid ’90s heyday. So I’m going to live-blog the panel.
11:08: How did Crowe find the arc of the documentary given the band’s career hasn’t followed the traditional rock movie arc? Crowe says “Nobody dies, nobody OD’s, nobody goes too far off the path of a basic integrity that they paid attention to. It’s really about a band that stays with their audience… it becomes a celebration of ‘We made it.'” He saw Pearl Jam in 2006 and was surprised by how different their shows had become from when the band began. “How do you get from the angst and explosion of the early years to this state of grace?”
11:10: Crowe talks about how the band evolved from Stone Gossard’s group to Eddie being the leader. Jeff Ament wanted the film to be “group therapy.”
11:12: Crowe’s first movie ever was a documentary on Tom Petty for MTV. “It was so full of illegal footage!” Angry calls started while the film was on the air, only aired once.
11:13: “We wanted it to feel like a Pearl Jam movie, what the fan experience would be,” Crowe says. He doesn’t like rock documentaries where you don’t get the point of view of the artist, but rather of the filmmaker.
11:14: Crowe talks about the battle against Ticketmaster, which didn’t quite work out at the time but helped build a new fanbase for the band because of the small towns and odd venues they went to while fighting Ticketmaster. “They redefined what the fan experience was.”
11:15: Crowe showed the band the movie in October, “And you could more than hear a pin drop. It was like the oxygen disappeared from the room.” At the end of the film, one of the band wives said, “It’s fucking great! I wouldn’t touch a frame of it!” He wanted to get under the band’s skin a little bit, or else it would have felt like a publicity tool. Wishes he’d filmed them watching the film, but they talked about the movie after, and it was cathartic; they thanked him for putting a mirror up to the band.
11:16: Matt Cameron is the only drummer whose interview appears in the film. Crowe said there was so much to say about the band’s many drummers that he wanted to take “a comic approach,” which rifles through the shifts very quickly. “I sort of didn’t want to get waylaid into a lot of the well-established avenues that a rock documentary gets into. If you’re a fan, you know what’s being said.” But it’s an issue they wrestled with.
11:18: What would Crowe say to people who think he should have profiled Nirvana ahead of Pearl Jam? “I would say go to Charlie Cross’s writing about Nirvana. Maybe Charlie or a filmmaker who was close to that epicenter would be the person to make that film. I would be first in line to see a Nirvana film. But my experience was seeing Pearl Jam from the beginning. If I can get that on film, then that’s the film I should be making.” To Pearl Jam, Nirvana “was both an inspiration, an obstacle, a source of discontent and jubilation and ultimately shock and pain when Kurt died.” He tries to show what it was like to be close to Nirvana, but he’d love to see someone really dig into Nirvana.
11:19: Given how much Crowe has written about getting very close to bands and then having to be honest with them, was this familiar territory for him? “If you rip the scab off a little bit from issues that need to be dealt with, and make people uncomfortable, but ultimately comfortable enough to tell you about it in interviews, you’re going to get something unique.” He says “American Masters” films in general do a good job of that. He wanted to be close enough to get interviews no one else would get, but still be tough enough to give the experience of the band. Band “chafed along the way,” but they told their story. “I want to ask the questions that a fan, given a front row seat, would ask, but I also wanted to be tough when I needed to be tough.”
11:21: Are there parallels between Pearl Jam and the Grateful Dead in the way they can tour forever and have their fans follow them? Crowe says they cut a scene in the documentary where the band goes to a series of Dead shows while they were trying to figure out how to do tours going forward. “I think they said to each other, ‘This is the way we can be,'” he says. He agrees with the parallel. “It’s great that they change their show every night, because whatever run of shows you get to see, you’re going to see a completely different experience every night.” Most touring bands do the exact same show night after night, “But not Pearl Jam.”
11:23: The film deals with Eddie Vedder struggling at times with the band’s instant, enormous success. “What Eddie had to do was develop armor and reinvent himself as a tougher, more true-to-himself guy,” Crowe says. Now Eddie is always in control of the music, he says.
11:24: Given that the band stopped making videos after a while, how did Crowe settle on a visual style for the later sections of the film? He says he had close to 3,000 hours of footage to go through, including live shows. “It’s fun, but it’s just that more hard drives start arriving.” It took him and his editors three years to go through all the footage. “It was our labor of love, and our hobby and our quest.”
11:26: “They never stopped caring, even if you weren’t there,” Crowe says of the band’s efforts during their less commercially-successful periods.
11:27: Was there anything that struck him about the early ’90s music scene that we’ve forgotten in the last 20 years? He says when Cobain wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Something shifted in the world of rock. As powerful as Lennon’s greatest work. This was something that said, ‘There’s a new ground here.’ I don’t know that that’s happened since in the same way.” What comes through is how different rock was “a minute before ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,'” with Bon Jovi and the other hair bands. Cobain said, “‘That’s bullshit,’ and a lot of people were feeling inwardly that way.”
11:29: In the film, the band is dismayed to be on the cover of Time, but they were excited to be on “American Masters” because they’re older and more interested in their legacy. Like being part of a series that has profiled Neil Young, Bob Dylan, etc. Eddie watched footage of himself as a young man diving into the crowds and wondered, “What am I trying to prove?” He was a little embarrassed about himself back then, but also wanted that version of him to be on display.
11:31: What was the band like in its very earliest days, from his point of view? Crowe always had access to them and knew them very well at that time. He was a big fan of Mother Love Bone, the band featuring Stone and Jeff, “And I knew them when they were lost” after Andy Wood’s death. He says “lightning struck twice.” first with Wood, then when they got a demo recording from Eddie. “The guys were in shock, suspicious, inspired and tentative about moving forward… and this magic started to happen. But I don’t think any of them knew that it would turn into the success that it did.” Crowe says Jeff in particular is such a fan of music that he said the band couldn’t make the same mistakes the other bands made. “They were so personally invested in doing it right that they never flew off the rails.”
11:34: Crowe appears a few times in the film. How did he decide how much he should be there? “I do get embarrassed” at being on camera, “but I just wanted to nudge the movie along from time to time… and put things in context.” Movie features footage of a disastrous promotional party for his movie “Singles,” where Eddie and the rest of the band melted down on stage. So Crowe had to appear in the movie to set up the party. In interview with Eddie, he brought up the party, and the air in the room got very still.
11:37: Crowe keeps everything, so he had lots of archival pieces of music and interviews that he had already done. “I wanted the whole movie to be like a box of collectibles you open years later.”
11:38: The movie deals with the band’s political activism, but only briefly. “Twenty years is a long time. To collapse that stuff into an hour and 49 minutes, you kind of have to make some choices. I thought we’d cover the political side of the band, and you could make a whole film about their political history. This one, I wanted to feel it was about the creative process,” and whatever the political side did to influence the creative, he wanted in there. Jokes that perhaps he needs to go back in and add more political material. The DVD release will have more political content.
11:40: “I’m a big Andrew Wood fan,” says Crowe, who wanted him to be present whenever possible. “It was Andrew Wood’s town, and he died. And that affected everybody, and the guy was such a true soul. To see the kind of sands of time just cover that memory up was wrong to me.”
11:41: What’s one of his favorite Pearl Jam songs? He loves “Release,” “Rearviewmirror” (which is “a Grateful Dead-esque song live”), and he loves acoustic stuff like “Thumbing My Way.” But he says his favorites change over time, which is why it’s great they have such a big body of work.
11:43: What 20th anniversary film might he be doing in 2030 of a new band? “I love My Morning Jacket,” says Crowe, who featured their songs in “Elizabethtown.” Says their concerts are “as emotional as a Pearl Jam show.” The business is different today, which makes it harder for a rock band to be in the spotlight, “but there is great music happening all the time.”
11:44: Why didn’t other bands follow Pearl Jam in the fight against Ticketmaster, and was the fight doomed to failure? Crowe says a lot of bands promised to follow them at first, “And tumbleweeds were blowing across the street when the time finally came.” Thinks years later, some bands are sorry they didn’t, “but at the time, people were laughing behind Pearl Jam’s back!” And though they lost the fight, they did create that new generation of fans. “A lot of people have scoffed at their business decisions every step of the way,” he notes, quoting a derisive interview Bono gave. But because they didn’t chase the traditional format, “They’re still here with a different audience, playing their shows in their own way… They were right. They did it their own way.”
11:47: Crowe says his next “American Masters” might be on a director. Is disappointed to hear they already did one on Billy Wilder, but PBS exec Susan Lacy says, “We would love to do it again, with you.”
11:48: Does he feel the band is still making significant music? “I do. You listen to a song like ‘The End’… and you can feel it. It’s real and it’s passionate.” He wishes they could have gotten more into this later period in the film. “They continue to be worthy of our attention in a very rare and wonderful way.”
11:53: Crowe now talking about his next scripted feature, “We Bought a Zoo,” with Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, which he’s editing right now. Compares it tonally to Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero.” He plays music on set to keep the energy going, in this case lots of songs by the Icleandic band Sigur Ros.
11:55: Does Crowe daydream about being a rock star? “You are funny, because that’s the most horrifying idea I can think of! That would be the worst!” His dream is to do what he’s doing it. Amused by the question. “I would leave the other stuff to others, who do it much better.”
11:56: We’ve clearly left Pearl Jam behind, now with a question about a “Say Anything” sequel. He says it’s the only story he’s ever told that he might do a sequel to, has discussed it with John Cusack from time to time. Which raises the question: what would be the 21st century equivalent of “I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen”? Crowe jokes that they have to bring back the drunk guy Lloyd drives home from the party.
11:57: Our final question returns to Pearl Jam, and the Seattle music scene in general. What brought Crowe there in the 80s? His wife Nancy Wilson was from Seattle, “And I fell in love with all of it. I just thought it was the best place to live and to feel a community, and experience music, films. I’d been so much about Southern California… that it was shocking to me to see a community that was so much about its own voice, and I knew so little from having been in San Diego and Los Angeles.” So the film is as much about “this other world where it was happening, where it rained a lot. People stayed indoors and listened to music and they had the greatest radio stations.” Lacy says PBS gets its best ratings in Seattle and Portland.
And that’s all, folks.