Pearl Jam Twenty Captures A Band and An Era

By Greg Shea

A WGBH Staff Pick

I recently saw Cameron Crowe’s latest directorial effort, Pearl Jam Twenty, in a nearly sold-out theater in a small art house (the Brattle Theater) in Boston. I drove 35 miles in from the suburbs as did three of my friends who, like me, are now old. And by old, I mean mid-30’s, married, mortgages, and the prospect of a 10:20pm start time on a Monday night had me second guessing myself by the time the lights finally dimmed.

But, it was worth it. Including the parking ticket.

It was my freshman year in high school when the Seattle rock scene exploded. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden -- these were the bands of a rock revolution. Compared to Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and their spandex brethren, this new crop of hard rock acts were a transformation. This was our generation’s Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Rolling Stones. Along with bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots -- teen angst had a slew of new voices and Pearl Jam ranked among the best of them.

Early on, Pearl Jam Twenty opens the floodgates of nostalgia. Between the VHS footage (complete with time and date stamp flashing in the bottom corner), old clips of MTV’s Headbangers Ball, and snippets of music videos it was easy to recall what the early 90’s were like. In one clip, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder holds up a CD of their new album, Ten, and bemoans that fact that it’s so small. It makes you wonder what he thinks of iTunes.

It’s fitting Pearl Jam Twenty is being released in 2011. Not only that it’s been two decades since such a radical shift in the rock music scene happened, but it’s been nine years since American Idol hit the Fox airwaves. Enough musical dust has settled to fully appreciate how exciting and different Pearl Jam was when Ten began climbing the charts. The band’s first music video “Alive”, released in September 1991, featured a black and white live performance in Seattle. The minimal approach and maximum intensity instantly garnered Pearl Jam a legion of fans.

The film itself is narrated by Cameron Crowe, but thankfully he uses narration sparingly. The story is mostly told through archival footage and insightful interviews with the band members themselves. It’s clear you’re in the hands of a talented storyteller. This is not a concert film. This is the story of a band that has endured through tragedy, fame, multiple drummers, and a laser-like focus on the music. One particularly interesting exploration is the role of power in a rock band. Rarely do musicians speak so candidly about the inner dynamic of who is running the show, but here we get wonderful details how Pearl Jam transformed from a band controlled by guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament then later to lead singer Eddie Vedder.

Crowe’s deft attention to character shows us Eddie’s arc from a shy outsider with a demo tape to someone at ease in his own skin and comfortable calling the shots. It’s not addressed outright in the film, but the audience is left wondering if Stone Gossard had continued to lead the band would Pearl Jam have spent the last decade largely out of the public eye?

Ultimately, that question only adds to the fact that it’s all the more amazing that Pearl Jam has stayed together for twenty years. In a very appealing and modest way each member of the band reflects on how fortunate they are to be doing what they’re doing. You get the sense that early on these guys understood the music is what matters not the forgotten grammy’s in the basement.

A few years ago I brought my electric guitar (which was seriously suffering from neglect) into the shop for a tune-up. There was a teenager behind the desk who checked me in. He looked at the stickers on my guitar case and remarked with heavy regret, “Oh, man, Smashing Pumpkins, I never got to see those guys in concert...” I looked at him, stunned. Smashing Pumpkins? We’re not talking about The Beatles here. These guys broke up in 2000. I suddenly realized all of those 90’s alt rock bands were from an earlier generation than this kid. Pearl Jam was his uncle’s music. It was the first time I seriously felt old. But then again, I’m grateful I was alive when Pearl Jam came alive.

Pearl Jam Twenty
Documentary, 1 hr 49 min
Directed by Cameron Crowe

Premieres on PBS American Masters, October 21, 9:00pm
Check your local public television listings


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