Time hasn’t been kind to grunge’s major players. Soundgarden disbanded for well over a decade, Alice in Chains tragically lost frontman Layne Staley and original bassist Mike Starr, and we all know the sad legend of Kurt Cobain.
All the while Pearl Jam have continued on their own path; sometimes as one of the world’s biggest bands, at others getting by thanks to their hugely devoted fanbase. Now, they’re perhaps the youngest elder statesman around: consistently strong albums, an almost obsessive devotion to integrity and each member’s all-round niceness contributing to their status.
Cameron Crowe’s documentary commences before Eddie Vedder had even arrived in the era’s unlikely rock ‘n’ roll Mecca Seattle. Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament had come close to greatness with their prior band Mother Love Bone when their vocalist Andrew Wood suffered an overdose that ended his life at the age of just twenty-four. The tribute project, Temple of the Dog, united the current Pearl Jam line-up with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.
Wood provides the overwhelming bulk of the film’s emotional punch as the talking heads glow nostalgically as they reminisce about the good times they shared with their lost friend. His departure hits harder with Cornell’s devastation being particularly clear to see.
The focus changes when Pearl Jam’s story hits evenflow. Almost over night sensations, their inner-band dynamic changes from being captained by Gossard to being lead by Vedder as they struggle to maintain their ideals in a world of mass commercial success.
As a former music journalist, Crowe was well connected on the initial scene and even included several of the bands in his 1992 hit film Singles. While that offers an apparent added candidness for most of his interviewers, Crowe feels too close to his subject. While he avoids the gushing reverence that can plague such biographies, its still slightly self-indulgent; two hours studying a band that appear to have had little in the way of inner conflict leaves little in the way of narrative thrust. Either Pearl Jam have enjoyed a very amicable career together or their awkward moments have been glossed over. Structurally too, it’s a little disorganised as the initial meetings of the band are described later in the process than would be expected, and a brief segment overviewing the band’s various drummers results in nothing more revelatory than the usual line of cliché that can be summarised as: “We’re the best we’ve ever been with Matt Cameron.”
With moments ranging from hilarity (an immensely drunken performance at the Singles launch party) to tragedy (an intense shot of a grief-stricken Vedder stunned by the accident at Roskilde that claimed the lives of nine fans), Pearl Jam Twenty is an accomplished documentary but one that lack that innate spark to match the genre’s very best. Fans, however, will adore it especially as the music – an electrifying collaboration with Neil Young on Rockin’ In The Free World, a packed stadium singing Better Man in unison, a ferocious blast through Last Exit and, best of all, an over the shoulder view of the writing of Daughter – is immense.
Pearl Jam Twenty is showing for one night only on September 20th. A full list of participating cinemas can be found at http://www.pj20.com/screenings
Words: Ben Hopkins