For a band known for some of popular music’s heaviest hits (“Jeremy,” “Alive”), Pearl Jam Twenty is a surprisingly light look back at the Seattle band’s storied history. Despite twenty year’s worth of professional and personal ups and downs, director Cameron Crowe’s one-note documentary mostly skips the heavy stuff, in favor of a celebration of the group that USA Today once called “the greatest American rock band of all time.” As a service to Pearl Jam fans, Twenty is a godsend. Taken in objectively, it’s worthwhile, but noticeably missing the biographical punch that comes from the very best music docs.
Crowe never finds a strong narrative in Pearl Jam’s story, but, thankfully, there’s magic in the music. Footage from the band’s second show, after only playing together a matter of weeks, reveals a performance of “Alive” (back when the band was known as Mookie Blaylock) that’s as polished and as vital as the studio version that ended up on Ten. There’s a portion of the film examining “Release” where the sheer power of the song itself threatens to stop the film dead in its tracks. Smaller bits shine as well, such as a early songwriting session for “Daughter” that finds Eddie Vedder singing a completely different set of lyrics to the 1993 hit we know. These are all gooseflesh moments, despite Crowe’s loose approach to storytelling.
Twenty is at its absolute best when it’s intimate and reflective. The staggering amount of candid footage on display reveals an important context to Pearl Jam’s work, not just providing a timeline, but revealing how their experiences over the past two decades have shaped their sound (and their press). If you’ve been following the band from the start, you’ll fully realize just how long twenty years can be; it’s enough time to turn boys into men.
Even then, we never really get to know the band outside of their work. Any revelations about who these men are is placed within the context of their working relationship with each other. Frontman Vedder seems to have changed the most over the years, from a shy idealist who channels all of his energy through song and spur-of-the-moment onstage antics, to a seasoned realist, who looks back at his younger self with sheepish amusement. Bassist Jeff Ament comes across as the most steadfast, guitarist Stone Gossard as the most down-to-Earth, and McCready as the most revealing when it comes to the trials and tribulations of being in a phenomenally successful rock band. Interestingly, none of the new interviews that Crowe conducts for the documentary feature any of the band members together.
Also, being Cameron Crowe means you have deep pockets for your documentary, so if you need to cut away to a scene from This Is Spinal Tap to make a joke about Pearl Jam’s many drummers, you can do that. For the most part, Crowe’s access to outside footage from MTV, news channels, and music videos, is useful in setting a scene, but, consider this -- for every second of known footage he displays, the audience misses out on nuggets of unseen footage and anecdotes.
The bottom line is that Pearl Jam Twenty is a product. Not just as a commercial film, but as one-third of an overall push that includes a two-disc soundtrack and a coffee table book. It’s okay to recognize this, however, and still enjoy the film as an incredibly polished, loving product. Pearl Jam Twenty may not create new fans, but for existing fans, it’s an exceptional musical experience.