As Pearl Jam Twenty peels back the old footage and interviews, one thing is clear from the band’s early days: Eddie Vedder is an intense and volatile personality who is constantly at odds with his own band, his vision of what rock and roll should be, and his own audience. . Lead guitarist Mike McCready explains that Vedder wanted Pearl Jam to be like Fugazi and other underground punk bands, “and while we like those bands, we didn’t want to be them.”
Vedder’s war with his image as something of a spokesman for Generation X is nothing new to those who grew up listening to the band’s first two albums – Vs and Ten. The decision to scale back and do things on their own terms is a storied affair. Whatever you think of Vedder’ disposition to stardom (and there are instances in the movie where you could make the case that he was a complete dick), Pearl Jam Twenty proves that in the end, despite all the odds, somehow Pearl Jam persevered. And just like their hero, Neil Young they managed to garner respect because they said “no” to anything that they felt could possibly strangle them.
As a rock and roll documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty ranks up there with some of the best. Crowe’s use of archival footage from early live shows proves what a great live band Pearl Jam was even in the early days. While Pearl Jam Twenty is mostly chronological in its storytelling, some aspects of the band are distilled into montages. The history of drummers is given a quick (and amusing) overview. Similarly, Pearl Jam’s politics are anchored by a 2003 performance of “Bu$hleaguer” where the band actually got booed.
Because Crowe is accomplished as both a director and music journalist, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions. In turn, the usually shy band members open up. Guitarist Stone Gossard admits to feeling bitterness towards Vedder in the early years, as he lost control of his own band to the singer. McCready talks candidly about his addictions. As for Vedder himself, the 2011 version is humble and careful with his words. As evident from recent live performances, the intensity is still there – but now it seems reserved for the shows.
For all of the anger and intensity associated with the band, there are some hilarious moments in Pearl Jam Twenty. At one point, Crowe asks Gossard if he has any Pearl Jam memorabilia. Gossard sheepishly admits that he doesn’t really have anything, because bassist Jeff Ament is the band’s resident collector. Gossard points to some DVDs and CDs – which he has in case he forgets how to play a song – and then pulls out an extremely dirty PJ mug which looks like it hasn’t been washed in years. The band’s drunken performance for the premiere of 1992’s Singles (which Crowe directed and Gossard and Vedder appeared in) is wildly entertaining. The drunkenness is evident in Vedder’s eyes as he grumbles, “everybody loves us!” He then proceeds to tear down a curtain on the side of the stage as the band tears through a sloppy version of “State of Love and Trust”.
Pearl Jam Twenty makes a great case for how Pearl Jam has turned into one of rock’s greatest bands. That much is evident if you’ve ever seen one of their shows or listened to their albums (even the post Vitalogy ones are great). However, Crowe seems to hammer that it into the ground a little too much by incorporating clips from Don’t Look Back, and The Kids Are Alright. At one point, even Vedder shows off pictures of himself with Joe Strummer, and Pete Townshend. As a fan of rock and roll, there’s no doubt that Vedder still thinks of himself as a kid who got lucky enough to meet his heroes. But underneath, both Crowe and Vedder still seem to want to tell everyone who left the band in the mid-90s: “these guys love us, so should you.”
As a portrait of a band, Pearl Jam Twenty is a rare feat. This is the story of 4 guys, whose wild different personalities conflicted with each other, and still managed to have their integrity. Varying set lists rewards the fans that stuck around – Gossard refers to this as “a gift” – and the belief that rock and roll can be salvation. Twenty years on, Pearl Jam finally get to be the band they always wanted to be.