Friday, October 7, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty (Cameron Crowe, 2011)

Pearl Jam Twenty is fan service done right. Armed with such an avalanche of archival footage that one wonders if someone hadn't been filming every second of each band member since their births, Cameron Crowe tosses in his own interviews and current-day concert video to make a package sure to please anyone with a decent familiarity with the band. Then again, maybe it's not so surprising that Crowe had access to mountains of material considering how quickly Pearl Jam rose out of the tragic ashes of Mother Love Bone to superstardom.

That stardom serves as the film's crux, the issue plaguing a band that wanted to reach all of their fans but knew that doing so meant acquiescing to a system they hated, especially Eddie Vedder. The most revealing yet, in retrospect, most fitting revelation Crowe digs up about the group is how Vedder, initially so shy on-stage, found his confidence when he saw security roughing up some drunk during a show. That brought out the dormant beast in him, and one can see the impetus for the band's shift from the early, insular songs of depression and anomie to the later works of sociopolitical directness. It also brought out his activism for everything from Tibetan freedom to Ticketmaster's price-gouging, and for a band so often derided for selling out grunge (as if that whole movement hadn't been co-opted almost immediately), Pearl Jam shows a disdain for fame so vicious it's a wonder they only briefly flagged in popularity in a 20-year career.

Crowe lays down information quickly, lingering on the death of Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone, just long enough to pay respects before launching into the meteoric rise of Pearl Jam. As the bandmates say, once they called in Vedder, then a security guard, based on an audition tape he sent them, the new group was playing shows by the end of the week. Their first album, Ten, exploded, and the rest was history.

Where the film takes its time is in its breakdown of the various elements that shaped the band's sound and progression. Vedder climbing on top of ceilings and lighting rigs as if looking for a place to hide from fame gives way to the idealistic fight against Ticketmaster gives way to playing for causes national and international. And while Crowe arrives at Ten with rapid speed, he also brings out the emotions that shaped its lyrics and sound. Vedder speaks of learning that his real father died before getting to meet him and getting out that pain in songs like "Alive" (which directly addresses the pain) and the gorgeous, droning cry "Release." Even the meatier remix given to the album's 2009 re-release cannot disguise how much of Ten sounds ready-made for an arena, but these songs also feel painful and intimate, and Crowe brings out why that is.

I don't know that Pearl Jam Twenty will offer up any new insights for the die-hards. As I watched it on VOD, I texted a friend of mine who is the biggest PJ fan I know, and I was amused that she would text back info on, say, Mike McCready's drug addiction in the '90s right before the film broached the topic. And considering how many fine albums the group has put out, front-loading most of the keen album analysis into Ten denies similar exegeses of great records like Vitalogy and their 2006 self-titled album that marked a creative resurgence for the band.

Furthermore, Crowe's collage of archival footage, modern-day interviews and the routine use of outside material for effect (i.e. reflecting the band's views on being put on a mainstream magazine cover like TIME's via Dylan's similar thoughts as expressed in Don't Look Back) grows somewhat tiring by the end, even if the slight peevishness of his juxtapositions is often amusing. Nevertheless, a sentimental chap like him understands the appeal of optimism in the often bleak world of fame, and if the band defines itself by skirting commercialism where possible and sticking by their principles, Crowe finds a goldmine in just how close they all are. A rivalry between Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, to say nothing of Vedder's early attempts to confine the band's success out of fear of fame, has all melted away, leaving one of the few bands to navigate their way through alt.rock's tumultuous upheavals. Also heartwarming is Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, a close friend of the group's and someone who still cannot talk about Andy Wood without his eyes turning red with held-back tears.

So yes, like all other Cameron Crowe films, Pearl Jam Twenty is unfashionably optimistic, never dwelling on the handful of tragedies while still acknowledging them and their importance (obviously, the disaster at 2000's Rosklide Festival is given serious weight). It looks fondly upon a group that has occasionally flirted with thoughts of hanging it up, only to return stronger than ever. Even now, these men cannot believe where they've ended up. Near the end of the film, Vedder looks at the photos on his walls, pointing out all the musical icons he's met like Johnny Ramone and Joe Strummer, his voice not tinged with pride but lingering astonishment that these meetings really did occur. Finally he stops on a photo of Pete Townshend, his greatest hero, and remembers how nervous he was to meet the legendary guitarist and lyricist. "The first thing [Townshend] said was, 'I've waited so long to meet you,'" Vedder mumbles quietly, looking back at the camera sheepishly and humbly. So if Pearl Jam Twenty shows a group of middle-aged men far more comfortable with themselves than they were at the outset, it also shows them still aspiring to be worthy of their success. As their other big hero, Neil Young, would say, long may they run.

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