[16 September 2011]
Countless people are woefully unaware that ‘90’s grunge luminaries Pearl Jam are still generating music today. Yet that would have been hard to tell while waiting outside the Princess of Wales Theater on September 10th as the sidewalks on both sides of the street clogged up with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the band as they arrived for the premiere of Cameron Crowe’s music documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty. PJ20, as it is more a casually referred to, is a retrospective about the band’s first two decades (since their debut release, Ten) and is a large part of this year’s Pearl Jam anniversary celebration (also including a two-day festival for fans, a 300-plus-page book and the film’s soundtrack). The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the lucky host of this premiere, also screened movies about U2 and Neil Young.
Grunge history is one area where this film excels—it delves deep into the formative years of Pearl Jam. Crowe looks into the entire scenario beginning with the Seattle music scene, described as like no other at least in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where various musicians and bands held a shared camaraderie with each other. The film covers the precursor bands, notably Mother Love Bone, which lost its lead singer Andy Wood to an overdose. Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden) plays a supportive part to Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard as he gets their new band together to back him up for the Temple of the Dog release. Eddie Vedder is recruited after he records vocals to a demo tape he received.
Crowe even plumbs the changes in Eddie Vedder’s personality, shifting from inexperienced lead singer to the prominent frontman he is today on screen, and the development of band’s “no” attitude. Seeing Vedder grow more ferocious during a show where the security is being a bit heavy handed is impressive. Another clip Crowe dug up shows Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain dancing with Vedder under the stage of an MTV awards show. The media had over exaggerated a feud between Cobain and Vedder but they come off a bit closer. Pearl Jam’s anti-music video stance and their accusations against the Ticketmaster monopoly are aired. The outrageous drunken performance for a folks in the music business is an early testament to the band’s lack of concern for other people’s opinions.
As a service for the fans, the movie succeeds. Musically, the film is not a greatest hits package, but it exemplifies the connection the band makes with its fans when they play a unique setlist every night on tour. There is no doubt about it. Pearl Jam have made some great rock songs. Interspersed with the interviews, Crowe mined the archives to find great live versions, unique instrumentals and the odd demo or two that fans will be clamoring for.
Yet the film is lacking in several areas, which detracts from its value as a documentary. A great deal of the band’s history following 1999 and especially after the Roskilde festival incident in 2000, where tragically nine fans were killed in a stampede, has been abbreviated. There is no mention of newer albums Riot Act, Pearl Jam or Backspacer or their switch to a new record label.
Little mention is given to the band’s more recent politics, including the Vote for Change tour or Ament’s support for US Senator Jon Tester. Of Pearl Jam’s political inclinations that are shown, their efforts to get release for the West Memphis Three (who have only recently been freed from prison) receives mention as does a moment from the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998—events predating this millennium. The most explicit recent moment is a performance clip of the presidential critique “Bu$hleaguer”, for which the band incurred a harsh response from a crowd in Uniondale, New York post 9/11.
Even more egregiously, Crowe does little service to some other important figures in the band. Organist Boom Gaspar, the unofficial sixth member of the band, gets shafted other than a small comparison to some of the ultra loyal fans where his PJ show attendance tally is tacked up (I believe it said 292 at the time). The complicated drummer situation is handled briefly as well, with a informal recap of the drummers, from David Krusen to Matt Chamberlin to Dave Abbruzzese to Jack Irons and then to, finally, Matt Cameron. The film did little to untangle the mess and never included interviews or voices of previous drummers.
Before the screening, when Crowe introduced the band to the stage, he somehow forgot about Mike McCready (!). The rest of the band gently nudged Crowe as a reminder and the audience laughed at the slight oversight (Cornell, in the audience, probably chuckled as well). Unfortunately, there was no Q&A session however for the fans, the band took off for a press junket. But the die-hard fans, who saw the premiere of the movie about their favorite band with their favorite band, were probably okay with this. They can proudly boast they fortunate enough to be present at the start of a new decade in Pearl Jam’s history.
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If you were unaware Pearl Jam was still around before this week, shame on you. You’ll be able to catch up on their history when the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary screens around the world this weekend and you can pick up the Pearl Jam Twenty book now at Amazon.
Chris Cornell on his way to the movie.