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Director Cameron Crowe’s love of music is not exactly a secret.  The most memorable scene of his film, Say Anything… features John Cusack holding a boombox over his head as Peter Gabriel serenades Cusack’s unrequited love.  Another success, Singles, used Seattle and its rising indie music scene as the backdrop for the comedic intricacies of unmarried life.  Formerly a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, Crowe’s Oscar-winning semi-autobiographical dramedy, Almost Famous, followed a teenaged journalist in the early 1970’s on the road with his favourite band and their assorted acolytes.  He was even married to guitarist Nancy Wilson of Heart, one of the coolest female-led rock bands, ever.

Crowe returns not only to his love of music, but the Seattle alternative scene that came screaming through the rest of the planet’s television sets thanks to a video called Smells Like Teen Spirit, by a group named Nirvana.  The Rolling Stones to Nirvana’s Beatles (or is it the other way around?) was a quintet called Pearl Jam.  For a small time in music history, they ruled the world as the kings of the phenomenon dubbed “grunge,” which like all things made too commercial and embraced too wholeheartedly by corporate America, withered and faded away.  Pearl Jam’s following wouldn’t exactly let them retreat into memory and twenty years in, the band still sells out arenas and boasts a fandom that has followed them to literally hundreds of shows.

Crowe unearths a treasure trove of rare Pearl Jam video and minutiae, including the demo cassette tape that planted vocalist Eddie Vedder in front of the band that would begin its life as “Mookie Blaylock.”  Vedder, a shy, dreamy bloke, still seems hesitant in front of a camera two decades after refusing to mime in the video for his band’s inaugural single, Alive.  There’s early candid footage of Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard on a tour bus working out new material that sounds fully formed, with Vedder’s haunting, oddly flexible baritone displaying itself for the mesmerising instrument it is.  The documentary also captures the camaraderie between the Seattle groups highlighted by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell quoting a mystified Johnny Ramone recounting how the New York bands he came up through would do anything they could to sabotage each other.  Indeed, it isn’t until the scene gets some glaring media light on it that the Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam hype wars became of any note and Crowe employs archival footage of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain being snarky at the other band’s sudden press attention, but even that seems tongue-in-cheek.  We relive Pearl Jam’s heroic, futile stand against the Ticketmaster monopoly that years later seems like good-hearted guys tilting impossibly at the windmills of a corporate monster.  Not quite so noble are the drunken, bratty episodes of the band showing up half-toasted to an MTV event they didn’t want to appear in (-“the birth of no”) or Vedder’s hiding inside a bug mask in a vain attempt to control his overexposed image.  Ah, youth.  Their firmly liberal political stance isn’t shied away from either as we see footage of a live performance of the song Bu$hleaguer, complete with Vedder prancing about in a G.W.B. Halloween mask, earning the band unaccustomed boos in New York’s Nassau Coliseum.  Their mentor/collaborator-relationship with rock legend Neil Young is nicely summed up by Vedder as finally having met an adult who “leads by example.”  We are also given the laughable commercialisation of the grunge craze, including Vedder’s unwilling Time magazine cover, flannel on couture runways, Adam Sandler as Operaman spoofing “Evenflow” on Saturday Night Live, and Andy Rooney’s loathsome 60 Minutes piece mocking teenagers depressed by Kurt Cobain’s suicide which occurred just twelve days prior.  Crowe takes us on an amusing trip through Gossard’s home in search of Pearl Jam memorabilia, which Gossard admits he doesn’t collect.  They turn up one filthy coffee mug and a dusty Grammy in the basement.  As unsentimental about their present level of fame as Gossard is about souvenirs, the band seems perfectly fine not being cover boys anymore; happy to play for the fans who pack venues to see them and sing every lyric to their songs.

The reason for this documentary is a bit elusive other than marking 2010 as Pearl Jam’s twentieth year together.  Clearly Crowe is a fan, and their creation and rise to fame, like any good origin story, is a fascinating one.  But considering the band’s (purposely?) diminished media presence since their early-nineties heyday, the audience, particularly those who may not be Pearl Jam followers, might wonder what the big deal is?  Their albums still chart very highly, but one wouldn’t know it from the documentary.  Crowe himself seems more fascinated by their past:  It is telling that the first two thirds of the film are mostly spent on their beginnings, including a long look at Mother Love Bone, the popular Seattle glam rock group from whose ashes Pearl Jam would fly.  The director also strives to connect the group’s influences almost entirely to the seventies’ rock Crowe himself cherishes, despite their own claims to earlier eras or other artists.  Precious little time is spent on Pearl Jam’s present or future, with the concentration being most firmly placed on recent concert clips and testimonials of the band’s greatness from their die-hard fans.  One thing rarely argued in rock circles is how great Pearl Jam is live and those scenes prove it thoroughly, but it’s not enough to fill in the clear gap in the film’s trajectory.  Still, there are plenty of other rock acts who have gone on far longer than Pearl Jam that haven't aged as gracefully, nor are as deserving of the devotion the Seattle band receives on the strength of its gigs alone.  Pearl Jam Twenty didn’t necessarily need to be a feature, but it is a really lovely fan letter to a band that’s worked hard to be worthy of the love and respect it receives.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Sept. 20th, 2011

 

 

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