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Pearl Jam Twenty
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Fan's Notes"
4 stars

Twenty years ago, I was in college and, perhaps not too surprisingly, I was writing for the school newspaper. Although I primarily wrote movie reviews of a caustic and borderline snotty nature--again, big surprise--I also did the very occasional music review, generally only if it was someone whose music I knew and liked and then only if no one else higher up on that particular journalistic food chain had claimed it. (Since the girl in charge of the music section was daffy about the denizens of the late and largely unlamented Manchester music scene such as the happy Mondays, there were fewer conflicts that you might imagine.) Anyway, one fine fall afternoon, I contacted some record company publicist in the hopes of scoring a copy of the new Joan Jett CD. She agreed and then said that she was going to include the debut CD from a new band that she assured me was going to be big--if I listened to the other CD and liked it, she was certain that she could arrange for an interview with members of this up-and-coming group. Even though my dealings with record company weasels were infrequent at best, this sounded like the kind of spiel that every act is pushed with for at least a few weeks until the label decides whether they really have a shot at being a viable commercial product.

Needless to say, I received and listened to both albums--the Joan Jett album was okay but kind of forgettable (the most notable cuts were a couple of songs she did with Paul Westerberg) and the other one had some pretty good songs on it but since I didn't really have any frame of reference for it, I passed the interview opportunity on to the editors and, as I recall, they didn't do anything with it either. Of course, the group turned out to be a Seattle-based concern by the name of Pearl Jam, the album in question was "Ten" and within a couple months of my vague dismissal, the album had become a smash hit and the group, along with geographic and musical rival Nirvana, helped usher in the grunge rock fad that pretty much dominated the industry for the next few years and inspired countless flannel-clad knock-off bands. Twenty years later, both the group and I are still doing the same thing--they are admittedly doing it with a tad more success and acclaim--and after all this time, the occasion to write about them again has appeared in the form of "Pearl Jam 20," a fascinating and entertaining chronicle of the band's history courtesy of Cameron Crowe, an early admirer who included them in his Seattle-based 1992 romantic comedy "Singles" before anyone outside of Pike's Place had heard of them. While the notion of analyzing a film chronicling the long and storied history of a band that formed when I was still in college is more than a bit disconcerting, it turns out that their story more than lives up to the extended treatment that it has been given here.

After a brief opening recap of the gestation of the Seattle music scene of the late 1980's, the film recounts the tragic circumstances that led to the formation of the group. They were born from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, an acclaimed local group whose expected rise to stardom was abruptly cut short by the overdose death of charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood. Afterwards, two former members of the band, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament began writing new material and, after recruiting lead guitarist Mike McCready and began to search for a new lead singer. A demo tape of some of the songs they had ben working on made it into the hands of a would-be singer in San Diego named Eddie Vedder and within a week of meeting with the others up in Seattle, he had joined the band and even contributed vocals to "Temple of the Dog," a album paying tribute to Andrew Wood that found the surviving members of Mother Love Bone collaborating with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. After hiring Dave Krusen, the first of what would prove to be numerous drummers, the group, now dubbed Pearl Jam (after a brief flirtation with Mookie Blaylock, after the then-popular basketball player), went into the studio in early 1991 to record their first album.

From this point, their story is pretty much well-known to anyone with even a vague interest in contemporary popular culture. Fueled by such hits as "Jeremy" and "Alive," the debut album "Ten" was a huge hit and the group became an instant media sensation, especially when rumors of a feud between them and Nirvana (who also broke through in a big way at the same time) over who was more "authentic" beg a to emerge. Over the next few years, thanks to relentless touring and the success of mammoth success of the follow-up albums "Vs." (1993) and "Vitalogy" (1994), the group went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world and as a sort of crowning touch, Neil Young, the legendary rock star often cited as a key inspiration for the grunge movement, recruited them to collaborate on the 1995 album "Mirror Ball." At the same time, however, some dark clouds did inevitably began to form. Some of them were to be expected from a group dealing with the pressures of superstardom. There were tensions within the band after the media began to portray them as Eddie Vedder's backup group and tensions with their record company when they decided to stop making music videos to promote their songs. There was the shocking suicide of Kurt Cobain, an event that hit even closer to home as he and Vedder and recently mended fences. Finally, and most infamously, the band went to war with Ticketmaster over what they felt were unfair business practices involving tacked-on service charges and pledged not to play any venues that they were affiliated with--a quixotic protest that few bands joined in on, even though it would have benefitted all musicians had it succeeded, and which forced the band to skip playing most major venues in the U.S.

These events are recounted by Crowe, returning to the director's chair for the first time since 2005's underrated "Elizabethtown," through new interviews with the band members, archival footage and, of course, tons and tons of musical performances. Considering that the band have never been what one might describe as loquacious, Crowe does a good job of getting them to talk but while his obvious kinship with them no doubt encouraged them to open up to a degree, there is a sense that this also held him back to a certain degree from asking more probing questions, especially in regards to interband tensions regarding Vedder's growing stardom and creative influence over the group. In raiding the archives for material, Crowe and the band have offered up a treasure trove of odds and sods ranging from snippets from the demo tape Vedder used to audition for the band to a hilariously disastrous performance on a MTV special commissioned to promote "Singles" (which we should all pray to the DVD gods is included in its entirety when the film hits home video) to a long-rumored but rarely seen bit of film showing Vedder and Cobain dancing with each other backstage at the MTV Video Awards. As for the performance footage, even those who would argue that the excitement of the band's early albums dissipated somewhat over the years would be forced to agree from the evidence on display here that they have always more than delivered--few groups working today so consistently hit the stage every night with the intention of proving themselves to be the best of them all and even fewer have pulled this mission off as consistently as they have. In the emotional highlight of the film, shot during a concert commemorating their tenth anniversary, the group even pays tribute to their literal roots with a thunderous cover of Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns" that features them at the peak of their powers while offering up a suggestion of what might have been if things had turned out differently.

If there is a flaw to "Pearl Jam 20," it is in the inescapable fact that most of the really interesting material involving the group occurred in the early years in their career and the narrative is inevitably a bit lop-sided as a result. Beyond that, however, the film is an involving document of the evolution of one of the last great American rock bands still standing in an industry that has gone through as many upheavals over the last two decades as they have. While it may not convert too many naysayers to the cause, fans will no doubt love it and, thanks to Crowe's skills both as a filmmaker and as a music journalist, it moves along without ever devolving into fanboy frivolity. Oh, and if any members of the group happen to be reading this, I am finally ready to do that interview if you are up for it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22766&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/30/11 00:27:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 24-Oct-2011


  DVD: 24-Oct-2011

Directed by
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