Judge Bill Gibron spoke in class...today.
Son, she said, have I got a little story for you…
When exactly did Pearl Jam become The Grateful Dead? When did their reputation as grunge pioneers turn into a traveling roadshow of fan obsessives? Just like the late great psychedelic '60s jam band, there are legions of loyal followers who make every appearance by Eddie Vedder and the boys into something sacred, that turn every album release or available bootleg into a Holy Grail worth sacrificing it all to obtain and enjoy. More compelling than their start as Mother Love Bone and other incarnations, more fascinating than the anti-superstar stance, trials with Ticketmaster, and spat with fellow chart toppers Nirvana; the story of Pearl Jam's continued commercial appeal and its ongoing battle with the music business is far more interesting than this bright and breezy career overview by rock journalist turned Academy Award winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe. While the Seattle scene beginnings of the band are intriguing, the lack of latter detail derails what is an often powerful and passionate documentary.
Crowe knows that many outside the most devoted will understand the whole early '90s explosion. He does a good job—perhaps, a too complete job—of explaining the connection between Soundgarden, Green River, Chris Cornell, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and late enigmatic frontman and scene hound Andy Wood. Before we know it, nearly 40 minutes have expired before Vedder provides a demo tape which turns into the seeds of Pearl Jam. Then we rush through initial success (Ten and Vs. get about five minutes of discussion each) and then we are adrift in a weird amalgamation of nostalgia and knowing confession. Unlike a typical Behind the Music expose, Crowe offers a more collage-like approach. One moment, we are in the midst of major band strife (there were strong indications of a break-up at one point), the next Vedder et al. are discussing their maturation and the various souvenirs of success they've acquired.
Luckily, Crowe "gets" one important element—Pearl Jam's incredible live musicianship—and offers it whenever he can. During the opening sequences, we see the band moving from small clubs to big arenas. Then, they become stadium rock regulars. Along the way, specific songs are highlighted, providing for some incredible, near epic moments. Indeed, the last act reprise of "Alive" is so stunning, so undeniable majestic, that it almost steals the rest of the film's thunder away. What it does do also is explain the flaw in Crowe's strategy. If he wanted to create a live souvenir ala Stop Making Sense, he had the necessary tools and talent right in front of him. Pearl Jam are amazing on stage, and an entire concert film would have been an equally compelling experience.
Similarly, slipping into the "why?" mode for a moment, he could also find a more focused way of dissecting the band's audience has never really disappeared. It may have shifted and changed over time (fast fame can do that to any quality musical act) but they are still deeply loyal and have a true bond with the boys. This element of the Pearl Jam saga is ripe for scholarly dissection—or at the very least, more time spent than Crowe does here. It makes Twenty feel incomplete, like someone censured the real meat of this movie and turned it into a glad handing puff piece. Granted, there is much more substance here than the often superficial approach, but Pearl Jam are just more inherently "interesting" than this. Crowe's obvious access should have been given over to something more hefty. Pearl Jam Twenty is a delight, if hardly definitive.
As for the technical aspects of this release, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent. While we do have to put up with a lot of archival and stock material (most of it old grainy VHS or non-digital film), the vast majority of the movie looks great. The colors are well balanced and there is a lot of detail for a non-HD release. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is truly astonishing. Take the final version of "Alive." When meshed with the equally powerful performance, the sound situation is breathtaking. As for added content, there are additional featurettes (more like deleted sequences from the film) which offer such insights as a tour of Eddie Vedder's house, Stone Gossard driving around Seattle, Jeff Ament in Montana, and the writing of songs "Faithful," among others. All in all, it's a nice DVD package.
For the true devotees of Pearl Jam, for those who count their concert going experiences in the double (or triple) digits, Twenty will be solid if a bit slight. Everyone else will get lost in the journey, though a few important questions are left unexplored and/or unanswered.
Not Guilty. Good, but could have been great.
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