When the grunge rock movement began in Seattle in the early ‘90s, filmmaker Cameron Crowe was living in the area and spent a good deal of time covering the music scene. At the forefront of the movement, which spread like wildfire across the globe, there were two bands: Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Yes, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and a number of other bands made significant marks but it was the aforementioned duo that made grunge the all-encompassing phenomenon that it was. If you’ve ever seen a Crowe film, you know he has a connection with Pearl Jam; I’m pretty sure at least one PJ song can be found in each of his films, including We Bought a Zoo, an addition that made no sense but was nonetheless awesome. Pearl Jam 20 serves as Crowe’s ode to his favorite band as he traces their origins back to the pre-Eddie Vedder days and follows them up through their most recent album, interspersing concert footage with intimate interviews and some home videos to create a portrait of what could be America’s last great rock band.
Much like Crowe himself, I am borderline obsessed with the grunge era. I think Nirvana saved music and you can’t convince me otherwise. Pearl Jam is probably my favorite band going right now and so for me, PJ20 was an outstanding way to spend two hours. This isn’t exactly the in-depth, investigative sort of documentary that many critics were hoping for. Rather, it’s almost a love letter to the band and the music of the era from a fan to the fans. And personally, I’m okay with that. It was thrilling to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the band and the history of how they came together. I’ve read some of this information before but it’s different to actually watch the band talk about themselves and about their music. The grunge era is such a fascinating, exciting subject and Crowe’s ability to weave together the various elements he uses to tell Pearl Jam’s story is incredible.
The early days of the band are of particular interest as Crowe examines the way in which the members of the group came together and the work that led to their breakout album, Ten. Through the various interviews and video clips, you are able to get a real feel for the brotherhood not just among the members of Pearl Jam but also among all members of the Seattle music scene, regardless of band affiliation. In one clip, Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) stated that his musician friends from New York couldn’t believe how supportive each band was of the next; New York bands viewed themselves as competitors while the grunge acts saw themselves as parts of a whole. In many ways, that feeling of togetherness is representative of a movement that was embraced by millions of (young) people from different walks of life who felt disenfranchised by society in general, let alone the crap that dominated the airwaves at the time.
One of the more intriguing parts of the film is the way in which it displays the changes in the both the personalities of the band members and the music they put together. As PJ20progresses, you witness the evolution of both band and individual. Front man Eddie Vedder is almost out of control in early footage, both on and off stage. There’s a sense of frustration, almost rage, that pours through in every song. Later concert footage and interviews show a much more controlled and mature man who has traded anger for political and social angst but one who still knows how to put on an incredible show and make fantastic music. It was engrossing for me to watch the changes take place over the course of 20 years and brought a new appreciation for some of the band’s music that I haven’t always been as impressed with.
If nothing else (and perhaps above all else), PJ20 offers up an enthralling anthology of Pearl Jam on stage. The concert footage is exquisitely cut and distributed throughout the runtime so that it never becomes a true concert film but also never allows the viewer to forget that these guys represent a powerhouse on the stage. The mix of early footage with more recent shots (including an IMPECCABLE performance of Release from a few years ago) provides a powerful sampling of the truly special body of work Pearl Jam has put together over the years. I would have loved for Crowe to delve deeper into the middle years of the band in which there was an apparent, if unspoken, conflict between the band members or give more insight into the origins of some of Pearl Jam’s more popular songs. But as it stands, PJ20 provides a beautiful and heartfelt look at one of the world’s most prolific rock bands.