Judge Steve Power could have tuned in, tuned in. But he tuned out.
"As they move through the 21st century, Pearl Jam are comfortably at the top of their game. Proving that you don't have to burn out, and you don't have to fade away."—Narrator
My musical background was derived from slavish devotion to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in my younger years that dovetailed into thrash and speed metal as a teen. As such, I wasn't completely enamoured with "Ten" or "Vs" back in the early '90s. Pearl Jam was one of those bands I'd heard (who could have avoided them?), and I usually just kind of nodded along when "Alive" or "Dissident" would pop up on a playlist at parties. It was "Vitalogy" in 1994 that first really caught my attention, with "No Code" my appreciation for the band was cemented, and then "Yield" turned me into a total convert. I promptly devoured the back catalog, read all I could find, and it didn't take too long before Pearl Jam dominated by "favourite band" list as well as my CD player. So in the spirit of full disclosure; I must tell you that this review comes from a totally biased devotee to all things Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam: Under Review touts itself as "An independent critical analysis," of the band, but in truth it's more of a historical retrospective. There's very little analysis, and even less critique, however there is a wealth of information present. The doc takes us through the early formative years of the band, from humble beginnings as a Seattle punk rock act through the death of Andrew Wood and dissolving of "Mother Love Bone," to the finding of vocalist Ed Vedder and the media sensation that followed when the debut album, "Ten" clicked with the mainstream and started a blaze. These unofficial documentaries often litter the shelves of music DVD sections in big box stores and music chains, and more often than not the budget prices are a testament to the quality of the features. Stock music blares over bland narration while sound bites and short snippets of interview footage are cobbled together, often limited by what "Fair use" laws will allow. In spite of being completely unofficial and featuring no input from the band itself, their label, or their management, Pearl Jam: Under Review is completely atypical of what you would expect.
Almost immediately, I was stunned by the wealth of archival footage, video clips, music clips, and "official" material presented throughout the show. The filmmakers deliver with not only some solid live footage from Pearl Jam itself, but also early clips of 'Jam precursors, Green River and Mother Love Bone. It adds an air of authenticity to the proceedings that, in spite of the unofficial status and the typically low-rent pedigree of these productions, actually makes this particular documentary feel relevant and worth your attention. The talking heads involved in the interviews are also personalities relevant to the subject, including music journalists, biographers, and a former editor from Rolling Stone magazine. All of them are knowledgeable and likeable cats; save for Seattle biographer Charles Cross, who seems to be talking out of his arse on more than one occasion, and AllMusic.com reviewer Ned Raggett, who comes across like a pretentious and condescending wiener. These are the kinds of music journalists that make me hate music journalists. These are the kind of guys who call "OK Computer" the greatest album of all time. But I digress. Ex Rolling Stone/Blender Editor Joe Levy more than makes up for them with his awesome, matter-of-fact delivery.
The only real disappointment comes from the glossing over of the post-"Yield" era of the early 2000s. After touching on the first five studio albums in some detail, "Binaural" gets little mention, and "Riot Act" gets even less. These albums were a big part of an interesting and storied era for the band, and to gloss them over after devoting such time to the rest of the catalog (including 2009's fantastic "Backspacer") seems like a disservice to these albums, and keeps the whole affair from being as completely thorough as it could have been. Another 10-15 minutes added to the run time to discuss these releases, pro or con, certainly wouldn't have hurt.
The presentation is definitely nothing special. The audio is straight up 2.0 stereo and is fine enough for talking heads and raw live footage. It won't shatter eardrums, and it won't shatter glass. Video quality also varies with the footage present, and the interview footage is kind of soft, but it's about what you would expect, and it's no worse than broadcast TV. The only extras are bios for the interviewees, and a brief audio interview with Ed Vedder and Matt Cameron recorded in Berlin in 2009. It's a little quiet at times, but it's solid.
While not quite the all encompassing trip that true fans might be looking for, Pearl Jam: Under Review is a great look at the band's career to this point. It may not bring much new material to the table, and it lacks the insider's perspective, but it's a great little history lesson for those who aren't quite hardcore "Jammers."
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