Crowe’s ‘Pearl Jam Twenty’ Goes for Gloss Instead of Truth

by Eric Melin on October 25, 2011

in Blu-ray/DVD Reviews,Reviews

Cameron Crowe‘s new documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, which spans the life of one of modern rock’s most enduring and influential bands, is precisely the kind of by-the-books rock doc that you might get if you were watching a two-part episode of VH1′s Behind the Music.

pearl-jam-twenty-blu-raySure, having been friends with the band for so long, Crowe had a lot deeper footage to cull from than VH1 would have and his personal interviews with the band aren’t in some cheesy studio with a boring backdrop, but in Pearl Jam Twenty, the filmmaker never really makes their story come alive (no pun intended).

The structure of the movie, out on DVD and Blu-ray today, gives away one of the biggest problems with Pearl Jam Twenty. After a certain point, the story on paper just isn’t that interesting. The movie spends a good amount of time on the unexpected death of the band members’ early leader (from Mother Love Bone), Andrew Wood, and a long portion dealing with Pearl Jam’s meteoric rise to the top in the early 90s, but after that, Crowe is forced to look backwards and start profiling the early days of the band members.

This is because, outside of a Ticketmaster controversy and tragic death of eight fans at the Roskilde Music Festival in 2000, Pearl Jam’s outward story is one of a slow and steady ability to maintain a certain level of success and stay true to themselves. Not exactly great movie material.

pearl-jam-twenty-EDDIE-VEDDER-CAMERON-CROWEWhat stinks is that Crowe is willing to tell that “outward” story — a highlight reel of the band’s pop culture greatest hits. (Not a good idea for a band that hasn’t had one in ages, by the way.)

Despite the fact that he has a personal relationship with Pearl Jam, Crowe never gets inside what makes them tick artistically. What he does do, perhaps in an attempt to sidestep that, is make some very shaky and unwarranted comparisons by showing clips of Bob Dylan and The Who, among others.

Lead singer Eddie Vedder‘s backstory with a father he never knew is fascinating and all of about five minutes is spent on that. Guitarist Mike McCready has battled substance abuse and alcohol addiction and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 21. Even less time is spent on that. Pearl Jam also went through five drummers in eight years, eventually sticking with old friend Matt Cameron. This turns into an anecdote, set to old-timey Vaudeville music and summed up in less than a minute.

Pearl-Jam-Twenty-state-love-trustThe Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster is a frustrating watch for sure, but it’s 10 times the movie Pearl Jam Twenty is because it spends most of its running time showing truth rather than talking about it the entire way through. There’s a difference.

Directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger were granted unparalleled access to Metallica while they were making a record under the influence of a “life coach” and a very opinionated producer, and at a time when they were going through personnel changes and were completely bereft of musical inspiration. It may not be the story Metallica wanted to tell or even the story that the fake happy ending might have you believe, but it is nonetheless a fascinating account of a band unraveling before your eyes, more unsure of themselves than ever.

I am happy that Pearl Jam has been true to themselves over the years and I admire them for not making music videos, concentrating on the music, and not letting outside agents, marketers, label people, etc. influence or taint the band. But I knew that already, and that being your thesis for a two-hour movie, well … it simply isn’t enough.

pearl-jam-twenty-2011As a career recap, Pearl Jam Twenty contains some nice clips that Pearl Jam fans will appreciate. Crowe does a good job of placing the band in the context of the “grunge” explosion in the early 90s and their effect on mainstream culture. Vedder being a reluctant cover boy on Time magazine and the band’s rocky relationship with Nirvana give us a little insight into the unusual expectations of living life in the rock n’ roll mainstream, but when the greatest conflict in your movie is that of sudden fame, you’ve got some pretty thin stuff there.

Clips of Adam Sandler poking fun at Vedder’s warbly singing style on Saturday Night Live and a Scott Stapp-Eddie Vedder faceoff on MTV’s claymation Celebrity Deathmatch show are great ways to introduce the topic of the band’s influence on rock, but this isn’t explored with any depth either.

Since Pearl Jam’s debut album was released in 1991, countless number of rock acts have copied the early PJ formula of radio-friendly, groove-oriented rock riffs with chesty, baritone vocals that growl and drip with “emotion.” Yes, Vedder is authentic when he gets all intense and stuff, but there’s something inherently showy about it that undercuts the band’s supposed earnesty.

What’s worse, a whole subgenre of generic, piss-poor ‘big dumb rock’ (or butt-rock) bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Fuel, Creed, Bush, and … God help us … Nickelback —  have had their way with the airwaves since then and its poisoned the well. Since Crowe’s overriding theme is that Pearl Jam are survivors, why not trace the paths of their stagier and more calculated copycats?

The worst thing about Pearl Jam Twenty is that is seems like a huge missed opportunity on Crowe’s part. In his attempt to show the best traits of a band he is obviously very enamored with, he’s wound up with a pretty lackluster film. It’s too bad that he didn’t use his own relationship with the band to get a different kind of story from them.

Pearl Jam Twenty Deluxe 3 Disc Blu-ray is a three Blu-ray Set featuring over Four Hours of Extras.

Disc One: Full-Length Version of “Pearl Jam Twenty” Along with Bonus Footage

Disc Two: “The Kids are Twenty” Version of the Film and Bonus Footage

Disc Three: “The Fans are Alright” Over 80 Minutes of Extras Focusing on the Fans and their Relationship with the Band

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

Facebook Twitter Google+ YouTube 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 lintly October 25, 2011 at 11:02 am

Stone Temple Pilots is awesome. Much better than Pearl Jam.

Reply

2 Jeff N October 27, 2011 at 12:20 am

I was disappointed in ‘Pearl Jam Twenty’ I was hoping for the doc to be more in-depth! I was wanting it to be in similar form to the Foo Fighters ‘Back And Forth’ or Rush ‘Beyond The Lighted Stage or even the Lemmy documentary ’49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son Of A Bitch’. I’ve been a big fan of Cameron Crowe’s work and I knew he was a big fan of PJ and knew them well but it just didn’t live up to expectations.

I agree with your review Eric and had a similar reaction after viewing it. Not enough insight on the band but plenty of great archive footage. It almost came across as some sort of a collage film not enough substance for me.

Reply

3 Eric Melin October 27, 2011 at 11:58 am

Thanks for the comment, Jeff! Yeah, I am a huge Crowe fan as well and I was expecting something more, I guess. I need to see the ‘Lemmy’ doc–how did you like it?

Reply

4 Jeff N October 27, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Eric, You should check out the Lemmy doc. I thought it was very good and quite lengthy. I’m a fan of Motorhead and really enjoyed the flick…the doc does show Lemmy’s fascination with Nazi memorabilia among other interesting things about the man.

Reply

5 Irraj October 31, 2011 at 5:24 am

Pretty lame, really. You know you’re reading a poorly written review when all the writer can talk about is what the movie isn’t as opposed to what it is. It may not be a groundbreaking, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of what the band IS. Then again, someone who finds Pearl Jam’s music bland should find something better to do with his time than review their documentary.

Reply

6 Eric Melin October 31, 2011 at 8:27 am

Irraj – Thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s true, I am not much a fan of the band. But if that film is the perfect “encapsultion of what the band IS,” as you put it, I’m sorry. Crowe’s look at what the band stands for was too surface value. Being true to yourself and handling your band affairs with integrity is simply not enough to hang a feature-length movie on. And if they truly are authentic and open with their fans, why were entire sections of their past history completely glossed over?

Reply

Leave a Comment

 

Previous post:

Next post: