Review: Does Cameron Crowe’s rock documentary ‘Pearl Jam Twenty’ shine?

At one point more than half way through “Pearl Jam Twenty,” Cameron Crowe”s very affectionate look at the Seattle band”s first two decades,  founding member Stone Gossard muses, “No one can put a finger on what keeps us coming back together.”

That”s the beautiful, mystical alchemy of a great band, isn”t it? There is something elusive and indefinable that holds the members together that transcends petty arguments, creative differences or band wives,  and that keeps them, as my late Billboard editor Timothy White used to say, locked in a dance they can”t get out of. It”s a hit- a fix- that they can not get through any other chemical or combination.

Pearl Jam was born on the back of a tragedy and, in some ways, that loss haunts  and drives them to this day. In a very simple explanation, Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were in Mother Love Bone with glittering star/lead singer Andrew Wood. After his death from a drug overdose in 1990, the pair found themselves in need of a new lead singer and ultimately connected with Eddie Vedder, who moved from San Diego to Seattle to join the band.  Six days later (!!!), they, along with guitarist Mike McCready and original drummer Dave Krusen (the first of five drummers) were on stage playing “Alive.” The footage from that first concert shows something coalescing, some magical inchoate idea/structure evolving before our eyes.   Superstardom followed.  The fact that Pearl Jam existed only because someone died is a hell of an albatross.

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But it was also an early tie that binds. As Ament and Gossard grieved Wood”s loss, their new pal Vedder was working out his extremely complicated feelings over finding out that the now-deceased man he”d only met a few times, who had been introduced to him as a “family friend,” was his biological father. That was the psychic pain that bonded the band and fueled those early records, and such great songs as “Alive,” and “Release.”

Crowe, who does a remarkable job of collecting archival footage from the band”s earliest days (and even before that) focuses heavily on that early time. He narrates the beginning (before getting almost totally out of the way), setting the stage for the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Seattle was the rock music capital of the world. Soundgarden”s Chris Cornell talks about how there was a wealth of bands, but unlike in New York or Los Angeles, the competition tended to be more friendly than cut throat. Even later, when  the twin towers of the Seattle scene – Pearl Jam and Nirvana- seemed ready to face off after Kurt Cobain slagged  Pearl Jam”s  music for being too mainstream, they resolved their differences before Cobain died.

“PJ 20” tells the unique story of Pearl Jam-the fact that the band had no private gestation period and hit it big instantly is almost unbelievable-but it is also the greater tale of how a band, any band, navigates its way through murky, uncharted  waters. There”s no training manual for fame and without strong foundations, the band loses its moorings. The miracle isn”t that Pearl Jam was formed, but that four of the original members have managed to stay together.

From that first  club gig on their sixth day to 18 months later, in the summer of 1992,  the band has soared to playing before 60,000 people at the PinkPop Festival in the Netherlands. They are on rocket ride that is as confusing and overwhelming as it is exhilarating, and Crowe does a masterful job of capturing the highs and lows, including a definite nadir when the band, exhausted and drunk, plays a party for the release of Crowe”s movie “Singles” on their one day off in months. Crowe recounts how the resentful band sent studio execs flocking to the exits during their profane September 1992 set, but doesn”t address how he felt about his Pearl Jam buddies” inappropriate behavior.

As Gossard says, the disastrous party lead to “the birth of no,” the band”s realization that one of the perks of fame was the ability to call the shots. It grabbed the reins and from that moment on, has controlled every aspect of its career.

One of the sweetest moments is when Neil Young swoops in and takes the band on tour with him in Europe in 1995. As Vedder says, it was the first time he”d been around “an adult who leads by example.” And it came right in time. Fame was a byproduct of the band”s success that the members never chased and it was unhinging  the shy Vedder. In fact, he says 1996 album “No Code”s” impersonal nature was intentional. After three albums” worth of cutting open a vein to mine for lyrics, Vedder needed some distance. He built a wall around his house to keep stalkers out, adding that the wall literally saved his life after an ardent fan drove his car into the wall at 50 mph. No word on what  happened to that admirer.

Throughout, Pearl Jam”s affection for its fans, if not each other, is evident. There”s a shared conversation between the band and its audience that is ongoing,  but as the movie”s most wrenching segment shows, when that connection goes awry, the price is high.

As the band played Denmark”s Roskilde Festival in 2000, the overzealous crowd surged forward, crushing nine fans to death. Crowe handles the footage tastefully and respectfully, focusing on Vedder”s shocked, horrified face on the large screen, as he crouches down, totally unable to absorb -or stop- what is going on. The interviews with the band, a decade later, show the grief of the moment is never far away and that some tragedies are simply too great to ever process. How could doing what they love bring about that kind of destruction?  “From that point on, we rethought everything,” Gossard says, in terms of what the band was about and how it moved forward.  Throughout, Crowe”s own interviews and ones pulled from other sources focus on the human aspect behind the reluctant rock stars.

While tremendously enjoyable and a must-see for any Pearl Jam fan, there are some issues with the film. So much time is spent on the the early years that the second decade gets short shrift. There is virtually no music from 2006″s “Pearl Jam” or from the excellent “Backspacer,” although “Just Breathe” from that 2009 album plays over the final credits.

Additionally, fascinating tidbits get dropped in and abandoned. For example, at one point, Gossard says that he and Ament “always had an adversarial relationship.” The reason why is left unexplored and explained away by adding that Vedder”s talent so overwhelmed them that they gave in to his power. As the band moves from Stone as leader to Vedder as leader- and as the other members began to write more-there are no discussions of how that transition happened or how Stone handled his fall from power. 

For all the great live footage- and the concert scenes are glorious for any Pearl Jam fan or any rock fan in general- other than one single shot, there is no time spent at all with the band in the studio. None. There is a scene on the bus where Gossard and Vedder are writing “Daughter,” (first called “Brother”), but other than that and one segment with Vedder talking about taking what the guys give him and molding it in to something,  I have no more of an idea of how Pearl Jam creates its music than I did going in.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

The movie suffers from too much of a single voice.  Cornell weighs in a fair amount, but the only voice of dissent, and it”s used more for comic relief than anything else, is Andy Rooney”s “60 Minutes” commentary after Kurt Cobain died, which has more to do with disaffected youth than Pearl Jam per se. It”s a choice Crowe made and it”s a valid one, but given the amount of turmoil that the band has gone through, including its 1995 battle with TicketMaster (which is given plenty of time),  it would have been interesting to see how those close to the band viewed the tumult. For example, longtime manager Kelly Curtis isn”t seen at all, except for in the closing credits. How does he perceive the TicketMaster fight after all this time? How devastated was the band that no other act joined them? What do any of the former drummers have to say? 

Crowe ends the film on a lovely moment that brings the band full circle. It”s the perfect way to close the chapter.  With the wisdom of two decades behind them, firmly aware of how lucky they are to still get out there and play before adoring audiences, the band gets the happy ending they have worked hard for.  Or, as we fans can hope, it”s just a happy middle.

“Pearl Jam Twenty” plays in worldwide on Sept. 20, then opens in select markets Sept. 23. It is available on demand starting Sept. 24. “Pearl Jam Twenty” will air on PBS on Oct. 21.