Sunday, October 23, 2011

Movie Review: Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam 20

I'm not a big fan of rockumentaries.  They've just just never interested me.  Music is something deeply personal for me, and I channel my reaction to a song, an artist, or a body of work through my own filters.  Films about music often try to portray an image, often not real, of a performer's work, so I always take them with a grain of salt.
Director Cameron Crowe, bottom center, with Pearl Jam. 
 Nevertheless, I've been really interested in seeing Pearl Jam 20.  Why?  It is a Cameron Crowe movie, and I really like his films.  From Say Anything to Almost Famous to Elizabethtown I've found something to like in all of them.  The other reason is because I like Pearl Jam.  No, I'm not a Pearl Jam junky that follows them from place to place, racking up hundreds of shows.  I confess I don't even know all their music, listening only intermittently after Vitalogy.  But I am Seattle born and bred, I saw them in Magnuson Park in 1992, and loved the raw energy they brought to that show.

Crowe's movie combines an almost Ken Burns-like approach to his documentary. Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, appear throughout the movie, but Crowe combines these with considerable archival footage, both in concert and interviews to create his narrative.  Surprisingly, or maybe not to others, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden also plays a major role in telling the Pearl Jam story.  Maybe a natural given his closeness to Mother Love Bone front man Andrew Wood, and his collaboration with Pearl Jam members on Temple of the Dog.
Mother Love Bone.  Stone Gossard left, Andrew Wood center, Jeff Ament right.

 Crowe begins by sketching a portrait of music in Seattle in the late 80's and early 90's of bands with guys who stayed inside and played a lot of music, making their way into the city's burgeoning club scene.  It seems to me that Pearl Jam had two important events that shaped their careers.  The first was Ament and Gossard's band Mother Love Bone and the death of lead singer Wood to drug overdose.  It profoundly shaped their musical experience and led eventually to the reconstitution of the band that would become Pearl Jam, gathering in McCready and eventually corralling a surfer guy from San Diego named Eddie Vedder.
Ament and Gossard back in the early days.
With the arrival of Vedder, success was not long coming to the band, first as Mookie Blaylock and shortly after as Pearl Jam.  And part of Crowe's story is how the band dealt with that success.  One of the most poignant moments of the movie is Cornell explaining that Vedder in particular did not want to explode on the scene as an overnight success.  Rather, he wanted to find fame incrementally, writing, working and performing without the explosion of exposure. The band went from playing small clubs on the West Coast to Lollapalooza and European festivals almost overnight  The challenge for them was to find a way to channel their success into  a path they could control.  We see them fighting Ticketmaster and dissing the Grammies, usually with Vedder speaking plainly and honestly, drawing the public fire on the one hand, while on the other seeking an artist's anonymity.
Crowe with with Gossard in Stone's home.

Bassist Jeff Amen plying his trade

Guitarist Stone Gossard doing what he does best.
The second event that plainly changed Pearl Jam's career arc is the Roskilde tragedy outside Copenhagen in 2000.  Nine spectators were killed at the huge, raucous festival in front of the Pearl Jam stage.  Ament explained the incident affected him in ways that nothing had since Andy Wood's death. It clearly prompted the band to ask, who are we, and what are we doing. What followed, and I assume continues, is the band's control over where, when and what they play.
Mike McCready:  "I'd like to think it comes from heaven, but I think it comes from inside  . . . the good stuff" said Eddie Vedder.

Eddie Vedder doing his thing

Crowe does a superb job of insuring that no one person is alone the limelight.  Vedder, outspoken, reticent yet charismatic, easily the most recognizable member of the band unsurprisingly gets a great deal of attention in live and archival interviews.  But each band member emerges from the movie fully formed.  Gossard is engaging, interesting and funny.  His remarks before Congress during the Ticketmaster anti-trust hearings are smart,  focused and rightfully scornful.  Ament is reflective and earnest.  Crowe's exploration of his Big Sandy, Montana roots may be the most insightful look inside the influences on any of the band members.  McCready seemed to have been interviewed while he was at home babysitting.  His memories and his observation are every bit as sensible and real as any other dad doing dad stuff. Crowe's conversations with Cornell and Vedder about McCready paint a picture of a guitarist capable of touching another plane of talent.

If Crowe's film has a failing, it is is that that it avoids a serious critique of the band.  Yes, those Eddie Vedder moments of don't-think-before-you-speak are there to see, and references to Roskilde, to internal stresses in the band, to moments of personal excess are made. Yet, there is no serious attempt to take a deeper look at them, to provide some analysis.  Perhaps it's an effort by Crowe to keep himself out of the film as much as possible, or trying to avoid a gotcha moment, but there are times when it seems he's missed the mark. 

Crowe does avoid the bombast, the party footage of other concert films.  He does create broad connections between Pearl Jam and the musical tidal wave that roared out of Seattle in the early nineties. Soundgarden and Nirvana are both included, mostly to broaden our understanding of what was happening here during that time.  But Crowe avoids promoting the Pearl Jam/Nirvana "feud." He dodges the silly stuff.  Though we see a few light moments with the band on stage, there isn't any staged goofiness, such as the Who's Keith Moon showing how to trash a hotel room in The Kids are Alright.

What emerges instead is a picture of a band that has come through the fire.  Crowe shows these men as talented artists that flew too close to the sun, only to find their way to self-preservation together and as individuals before their fame consumed them.  It is a great story.


DougH said...

Kevin, I had a email from our local newspaper Entertainment Section editor. He wants you to submit your resume and your renumeration requirements. He has a position as movie reviewer available if you want :-)
You are a fine reviewer and much better than many who are published.
Great job!
Now I have tunes from "Ten" in my head...

Kevin said...

There are worse things to have stuck in your head. What if it was an album by Rick Astley. I'd have to shoot myself.