Tuesday, December 27, 2011

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: a review of "Pearl Jam Twenty"

Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

“If I close my eyes, where am I? What does this music mean?”
-Eddie Vedder

When I close my eyes and remember the alternative rock scene during the 1990’s, I realize more than ever what a precious time that was to be a rock music fan. This feeling has continued to grow steadily, during and since those years, as I was indeed more than a little skeptical of the bands that flooded the airwaves and MTV seemingly out of nowhere. In 1991, I was 22 years old, just out of college and beginning my new adult life. If there has ever been a constant with me, it has been the presence and gift of music. Even moreso than books, writing, and film, music is nothing less than life’s elixir. I don’t read books every single day and I certainly do not watch movies every day either. But, I cannot ever imagine a day where music does not contain its magical pull over my heart and soul. But, in 1991, I definitely gave the alternative music scene, which was so quickly snapped up and mass marketed by the music business and the media, that I was very unsure if what I was hearing was real, or was it all just feedback and attitude all cloaked in copious amounts of flannel.

I remember when I first heard Nirvana. It was perhaps a hair before their world domination and I had to admit that I was immediately struck by the honestly and lack of flash in what I was hearing, in addition to the undeniable intensity. I remember the point in 1994, when my musical spirit began to separate the alternative scene’s wheat from the chaff as the dark musical visions of Nine Inch Nails and The Smashing Pumpkins spoke to me the loudest. And while there were bands whom I eventually began to embrace, Pearl Jam did possess a certain enigmatic status that for some reason, I have never quite wrapped my arms around.

Pearl Jam has always been a band that I have appreciated. But, as I have been even less than a casual fan, I have always felt that this band was indeed the real deal. I liked how they have marched to their own beat seemingly from the very beginning, making up their own set of rules to create music by. While I do love that certain artistic boldness and declaration of autonomy from my favorite musical artists like Prince or Todd Rundgren, for whatever reason, Pearl Jam hasn’t quite spoken directly to me…yet.

Writer/Director Cameron Crowe’s new documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty,” is not only a celebratory film that marks Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary as a musical unit, the film feels like the act of the ultimate, passionate fan imploring you to try and see what he or she feels about a band that they happen to love so much that it hurts. That is a sentiment to which I can relate to, as I have been that person so many times as I have pestered friends and family to try and see what I see in the art that moves me in the greatest way. Now that I have seen the film, and therefore listened most attentively to Crowe’s impassioned declarations, I can say that “Pearl Jam Twenty” has given me a broader understanding of the rich legacy of Pearl Jam’s music and artistic intents. It is a first rate film that rocks epically and is also as intimate as the best emotional scrapbook.

“Pearl Jam Twenty” opens in 1989 Seattle, as guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament are already bound together as musical brothers-in-arms in the seminal band Mother Love Bone, which featured the flamboyant and magnetically charismatic Andy Wood as the front man. Just as that band’s musical dreams were ready to take flight, tragedy struck as Wood died from a drug overdose. From those ashes, Gossard and Ament, along with guitarist Mike McCready began to write new songs as they each pondered their respective futures. A demo tape of instrumental tracks eventually found its way to California and into the hands of Eddie Vedder who found himself so inspired that he contributed his vocals to the tracks, sent the tape back to Seattle and wowed Gossard, Ament and McCready in return. Vedder was invited to visit Seattle so the musicians could jam together and after merely six days, a new band was born and playing their first shows to boot!

From this point, “Pearl Jam Twenty” chronicles the band’s overnight success and stratospheric rise into the pop culture mainstream (much to the chagrin of Vedder, who would have preferred a more deliberate pace upwards), their period as MTV mainstays during the early 1990’s, their subsequent battles with Ticketmaster, their collective and individual pressures with sudden fame and their eventual and purposeful retreat from the limelight, a decision the band refers to as “The Birth Of No” and made in order to keep the band focused upon the music instead of the trappings that accompany celebrity. Throughout it all, Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” gives us a portrait of a band whose perseverance, tenacity and devotional love of music has served to strengthen their bonds with each other as well as their faithful audience.

With Director James Moll’s solid “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth” and Michael Rapaport’s outstanding “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest,” Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” joins the ranks of the extremely impressive music documentaries that are being released these days. With these films, I have found it to be more than fascinating that this crop of documentaries are focused upon musical groups and artists during an age in which seemingly every moment has been documented, unlike music documentaries of the past where archival material was scant at best. I first noticed this particular quality when I saw Director Peter Bogdonavich’s wonderful and epic four hour documentary “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Running Down A Dream” (2007) and “Pearl Jam Twenty” (while only half of that film’s running time) is cut from that same cloth. Cameron Crowe’s film has been culled from reportedly over 1200 hours of material including concert footage, television appearances, home videos, all manner of visual odds and ends plus brand new interviews with all of the members of Pearl Jam plus Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, a close confidant of the band as well as member of Temple Of The Dog, a one-off band created in tribute to Andy Wood.

Perhaps stemming from his years and experience as a rock music journalist, Crowe is not the least bit intimidated by the extreme wealth of cataloged material. Also, his journalistic and filmmaking skills are not hampered in any way due to his personal closeness with the band, whom he has known since the late 1980s and collaborated with on “Singles” (1992). Crowe is remarkably clear eyed and completely focused in his storytelling, which after a somewhat slow start built into a powerfully resonant and moving film experience that eventually rockets by.

What is obvious from this film is its complete lack of hyperbole and the manufactured drama that marred the old “Behind The Music” series. The film actually works like Pearl Jam’s music: Nothing is prefabricated and everything feels honest and authentic because as Crowe himself states in his brief and warm narration “this was music created by guys who stayed indoors a lot. They had a lot of time to play and a lot of time to listen…and they listened to everything!” Crowe illustrates through this film that Pearl Jam creates music simply for the love of creating music and this film beautifully works in tribute to that creative spirit and to all of the musical heroes that inspired the band members.

Eddie Vedder, even through a documentary feature, shows his magnetic personality. He is a complex figure seen to be quite thoughtful, introspective, very shy and even mercurial yet once on stage, he is unleashed to a nearly completely opposite degree. In one fantastic sequence, scored to the song “Porch,” Crowe strings together a series of concert clips where Vedder took dangerously death defying steps climbing the rafters, lighting rigs and whatever else he could conceivably scale and then, propelling himself into equally death defying leaps into the arms of the adoring crowds below. Of course, these dangerous yet show stopping antics were grudgingly tolerated by the remainder of the band. Yet, despite the differences that exist between Vedder and is Seattle bandmates, their union seemed to be almost divinely ordained as the separate tragedies found in the deaths of Andy Wood and Vedder’s own Father felt symbiotic as if both events were cosmically designed to bring a new destiny into fruition.

This same sense of spiritual intervention also arrived for me during a somber section of the film detailing the tragic deaths of nine concert goers at the June 2000 Roskilde festival held outside of Copenhagen. In addition to all of the band members’ respective periods of existential reflections, a redemptive moment arrived months later when the band revived the track “Crown Of Thorns,” a selection not performed since the demise of Andy Wood and Mother Love Bone. This sequence for me was one of the film’s most stirring as the past and present came together in song, in healing and in hope of carrying onwards towards a new future.

From a musical standpoint, I really believe that one can tell a lot about a band by how they perform on stage. For their entire musical career, for all of their success, Pearl Jam has continuously strived for and proudly consider themselves to be a band that has grown increasingly faceless. This quality plus their decreased presence from public view within the media and my transient interest in the band, I really have not seen very much live footage. Inspired by Director Jeff Stein’s classic rock documentary about The Who entitled “The Kids Are Alright” (1979), Crowe showcases Pearl Jam’s electrifying intensity, superior musicianship (I have to make special mention of Mike McCready’s blindingly stunning guitar solos) combined with the undeniable brotherly love between the band members makes for a enormously rousing musical experience. This footage provided me with an avenue into the band which I have not possessed before viewing this film and I now see them in an entirely new light. Furthermore, now that we are living in an era where concerts exist with Broadway show pyrotechnics and lip synching is not even blinked at in reproach, I feel that a film like this one provides a most necessary antidote to the plastic glossiness of live performance. Pearl Jam’s authenticity should be commended more than ever as each performance never seems to be about the act of just singing songs. It is an act of deliverance.

Even with all of this material which is so vibrantly presented, what makes this film extend beyond an elongated episode of “Behind The Music” are the band members themselves. I enjoyed their camaraderie, their sense of community with other musicians in Seattle and their thankfulness at being granted the opportunity to collectively live the artist’s life. Watching the current interviews with the members of Pearl Jam, I was struck at how much they appear like the people I see everyday and those that I have known throughout my life, an observation that lead me to this film’s larger goals, I think. Pearl Jam and the bands of that era, despite their fame, never really felt as out of reach to me as say The Who or The Beatles. These were the right people making the right music at the right time and for my generation, the unfairly named “Generation X,” the 1990s was undoubtedly and vigorously our time. The members of Pearl Jam came from us. They were, and remain, part of us with our successes, downfalls, life lessons and everything in between jointly shared. The communication between the band and the audience felt entirely symbiotic to me, especially during the climactic performance sections of “Better Man” and the classic “Alive.” For me, I think that Cameron Crowe presented a vision during which every Pearl Jam concert exists one shining moment in time in which we are ALL stars together. That is what the very best music of the 1990s, regardless of genre, delivered to listeners. This was music made by fans for fans, all the while creating sounds and artistic statements that forged new territories while also honoring all that came before.

Even greater than that observation is a topic that is a constant presence in all of Cameron Crowe’s films, including his terrific “We Bought A Zoo”: “Pearl Jam Twenty” is a passionate ode to the state of integrity, how to find it, cultivate it, maintain it against all odds, by any means necessary and even at the risk of alienating your biggest fans because in the end, the band members, as well as this idiosyncratic filmmaker are the only ones walking within the shoes of their lives and they must satisfy their creative spirits above all else. These are people who have been blessed with the talent, drive, persistence and the opportunity to be creative artistic people and they have equally been blessed with the opportunity to build their lives from those blessings. Rightfully and unapologetically, they refuse to squander those blessings.

“Pearl Jam Twenty” is a triumphant film which chronicles how a band came together and has continued to solider onwards despite any and all changes in the musical landscape, carving out a specific place to call their own. In fact, while this is a film about Pearl Jam, this film may be just as autobiographical about Cameron Crowe as his “Almost Famous” (2000). Through Pearl Jam’s artistic life, he speaks of his own.

And to that end, we end up thinking about how we live with integrity within our own lives. To think, all of that plus a booming soundtrack!


So, where can you see “Pearl Jam Twenty”? After its nationwide one night only theatrical screening in September and a showing on PBS television’s “American Masters” series in October, the film is now widely available on DVD and Blu-Ray formats as well as through your cable or satellite provider’s On Demand services. This film is a great rock and roll ride, so don’t hesitate to check this film out.

Oh yes…PLAY LOUD!!!!!

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