Rock bands come and rock bands go but very few have been able to consistently please their fans like the Seattle rockers Pearl Jam. Twenty years after featuring the band members in his scene defining romantic drama Singles, Cameron Crowe takes a retrospective look at how they've lasted all these years in his doc Pearl Jam Twenty. Though adhering to chronological docu-conventions, PJ20 is a treasure trove of music and history that no 90s rock fan should miss.
It's pretty hard to believe it's been twenty years since Eddie Vedder's emotion filled baritone vocals started playing over local radio. As a kid growing up in Seattle in the early 90s, bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Alice In Chains did more than just provide the soundtrack to my youth. They helped define my and my entire generation's identity. So it was with a healthy sense of nostalgia I took my seat for the premiere of Crowe's doc at TIFF. That nostalgia turned into something closer to bewildered delight as Eddie Vedder was ushered to his chair two seats in front of mine.
I tried to imagine what Vedder was thinking as he watched his life play out in front of him, turning to make quiet comments to Neil Young seated beside him from time to time. A mix of both sorrow, pride and embarrassment it would seem. Sorrow at the loss of life that spawned the birth of Pearl Jam: the death of enigmatic Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood. Pride as his bandmates commented on how incredibly fortunate they were to find someone as talented as Vedder. Embarrassment at the ridiculous antics he committed as a young frontman, emboldened by the crowd to strip down to his undies and dive from the rafters into the sea of sweaty fans.
These anecdotes play out in an abundance of wonderfully grainy video shot by Crowe and others in those early days. The band's rise to stardom and struggles with fame make up the majority of the film. This is a fascinating insider narrative for those who remember it from the outside - but nothing particularly transcendent for those without a specific interest in Seattle grunge (a term avoided by Vedder who when asked in a hilarious moment if grunge is still alive, rubs his teeth, looks at his finger, and answers: yep). Concert footage and plentiful live music also play an important part as the band goes from playing tiny clubs to outrageously large festivals.
Pearl Jam's history is filled with ample drama from their public battle with Ticketmaster to the tragic fan stampede at Roskilde. The film covers all of it, painting an intimate portrait of a band beating the odds and overcoming difficulties that would cause most groups to splinter. But this is the story of greater men - talented individuals who have triumphed as more than the sum of their parts and are still making music at the top of their game twenty years later.