Filmmaker Cameron Crowe's (“Jerry Maguire”) celebratory documentary, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” makes its television debut at 9 tonight on Channel 2 as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. It provides a comprehensive trip down memory lane that fills you full of nostalgia for the embarrassment of riches that was the Seattle music scene in the early 1990s.
My first exposure to Pearl Jam was their award-winning video for “Jeremy,” a haunting depiction of teen suicide expertly directed by Mark Pellington. The lyrics were moving and the tune catchy, the perfect marriage of rock and social conscience that effortlessly tapped into my deepest emotions.
That was 20 years ago, and I’ve been devoted to the Jam and its ultra-charismatic frontman, Eddie Vedder, ever since. I’ve faithfully bought every album, devoured every tune, all the while marveling at the band’s dedication to remaining true to itself by suppressing egos and always putting music first.
Twenty years! That’s longer than most marriages, yet it’s flashed by in what seems like an instant, a fact not lost upon filmmaker Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire”) in his celebratory documentary, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which makes its television debut at 9 tonight on Channel 2 as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. It provides a comprehensive trip down memory lane that fills you full of nostalgia for the embarrassment of riches that was the Seattle music scene in the early 1990s, a time when Vedder and company joined Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains in dominating the radio airwaves.
But what stands out is how real and down to earth the band has remained in a line of work where longevity normally breeds contempt. Just ask The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith or The Police. After 20 years together, the band’s Core 4 of guitarists Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready and Vedder remain close friends, collaborators and support network. It’s one for all and all for one. And that oneness includes relative newcomer drummer Matt Cameron, who joined the band in 1998 after the breakup of Soundgarden.
Their camaraderie provides the emotional center of “Pearl Jam Twenty,” an otherwise uneven mash up of home movies, old concert footage and far too many talking heads reminiscing about the good ol’ days when Seattle’s bevy of “grunge” musicians had each other’s backs. In fact, they were so tight they often cross-pollinated into super groups like Temple of the Dog, which brought together members of Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone, the seminal band from which Pearl Jam emerged in the wake of the drug-related death of lead singer Andy Wood.
Wood’s replacement? A shy, insecure surfer dude from San Diego named Eddie Vedder, who mailed Gossard and Ament a demo tape in 1990 that would prove to be his ticket to fame. We see and hear the fortuitous cassette, which has Vedder’s San Diego phone number imprinted on it just in case the boys in Seattle decided to call him back. They did, and the rest is history.
Crowe recounts just about every key moment of that “history” from the band’s infamous feud with Ticketmaster, its adoption of Neil Young as a grizzled mentor, its social activism and its love-hate relationship with Kurt Cobain, whose 1994 suicide had a profound effect on the band and its music. But Crowe presents it all in such a truncated, unstructured way that it prevents the documentary from achieving any sort of rhythm or flow.
It’s a problem exacerbated by Crowe’s manic editing, seldom letting a shot last more than 3 or 4 seconds. The only times the camera lingers is on the occasional bit of rare concert footage and the talking-head interviews Crowe conducts with band members and Temple of the Dog frontman Chris Cornell, none of whom have anything particularly interesting to say.
Noticeably missing for Red Sox fans is a mention of Theo Epstein joining the band on its 2005 tour of South America after the Sox GM famously quit his day job to live out his rock star fantasies through close pal Vedder. Also absent is any real insight into the band’s ability to create so many memorable songs that transcended styles and genres. Nor do we learn much about their private lives or their families. As close as we come is Vedder’s emotion-filled recollections of his dead father and how he poured out his long bottled-up feelings for the dad he never knew in the classic song, “Release.”
Still, there’s enough in “Pearl Jam Twenty” to please the band’s loyal fans, even though the film mostly recycles what fans already know. But the bits of rare footage (like Vedder and Cobain embracing backstage at an MTV event) and a plethora of evocative photographs go a long way in helping to mask the flaws. But compared to Martin Scorsese’s riveting two-part George Harrison documentary currently airing on HBO, “Pearl Jam Twenty” is a rather wan tribute to a landmark band that merits more than Crowe delivers.
"PEARL JAM TWENTY" A documentary by Cameron Crowe featuring members of Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell. 2.5 stars out of 4.