Dir. by Cameron Crowe - 1 hr. 49 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There's a sort of a caveat that seems required when talking about most documentaries about bands: for fans only. Most music documentaries end up like that - it's rare that what's being captured ends up being far more interesting than the appeal of the people involved might suggest. It does happen, though, like in "Hype!" (for which this film serves as an excellent companion) or "Dig!" (my guess is that the exclamation mark makes all the difference), but most of the time, what you're in for is a look at a band, and whether you already like the band pretty much dictates whether or not you're going to be interested in the film in the first place. The only other approach that seems to be take is the "Behind the Music" approach, that focuses on the misery that breaks bands and people, and in a very voyeuristic manner.
"Pearl Jam Twenty" is neither of those things; it's a celebration. That's not to say that there haven't been low moments in Pearl Jam's history that could have been exploited, but this movie is very much a survivor's tale. And that story is vastly different than other band's stories, the ones that burnt out or faded away. The basic rock story arc demands a spectacular flame-out at the end; you must pay if you fly too close to the sun. That might be a lot of musicians' story; a quick ascendancy brought low by missteps. Unlike every one of their peers, Pearl Jam still sells pretty well, packs out arenas, never broke up. The members of the band got their tragedy out of the way early (Andy Wood's OD death before Mother Love Bone's first album could come out). That's not to suggest that there haven't been problems along the way, but they're still around and ticking twenty years later.
This film is built on piles and piles of archival footage, from their earliest days (one performance is a mere six days after their forming as a band) to current day. It includes everything from rare concert footage shot in tiny dives to concerts in front of sixty thousand people. There's even footage of bass player Jeff Ament shooting hoops by himself in the early 90's. You know how I know it was from the early 90's? Ament was rocking the running shorts over bike shorts look that was popular in the NBA for about a season and a half (google "Roy Tarpley" images, if you're curious). This is where this film fulfills it's promise to fans; if you like Pearl Jam, you're going to love this. Maybe you'd like to see Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard writing "Daughter." Or maybe you want to see them get booed like crazy for playing "Bu$hleager" in front of an unappreciative audience. Perhaps you'd be interested in any of a million interesting clips that you've probably never seen before. If so, you're completely in luck.
In storytelling, failure is almost easier to deal with than success. Failure marks a distinct end to a particular era, even if that's not exactly how things work in life. Pearl Jam existing successfully for twenty years is an achievement, but it's not an easy story to tell. There is (at this point) no end to that story, and even the members of the band seem not to have a perfect grasp on how they've survived this amount of time. Fortunately, one explanation exists in the form of the soundtrack. Whatever personal squabbles have arisen, it wasn't difficult to put together nearly two hours of their music, and it doesn't lag. It's not a nostalgic set-list either, including everything from early songs to ones as recent as their last album. Now, this isn't a film that's going to convert the unconverted (unless you've just never heard them play before, and this serves as a first exposure to their music); most people have settled on loving Pearl Jam or just being indifferent to them at this point. If this is the sort of thing that you're into, it's very, very welcome.
4 / 5 - Streaming