Cameron Crowe is sort of considered rock 'n' roll's director, especially with his years spent as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter -- an experience immortalized in one of Crowe's best films, Almost Famous. An unabashed music geek who features songs prominently in his films, Crowe would seem like the perfect pick to direct Pearl Jam 20, a documentary tracing the 20-year career of Pearl Jam, one of the biggest (and, sadly, one of the last) of the bands that led the charge during the alternative rock revolution of the early 1990s. Watch the trailer for Pearl Jam 20 below (review following).
Crowe is friendly with the members of Pearl Jam and has been following the band for years. Maybe this is why PJ20 feels too much like it was made by a fan who was simply excited about getting to hang out with the band and watch rare performance and behind-the-scenes footage, not a director attempting to tell Pearl Jam's untold story, probe deep into the band's inner workings and relationships, or discuss the political and cultural environment that allowed a band like Pearl Jam flourish.
The result is that PJ20 reveals very little that even a moderate Pearl Jam fan wouldn't already know. This isn't helped by the fact that the band members -- Eddie Vedder (vocals, guitar), Stone Gossard (guitar), Mike McCready (guitar), Jeff Ament (bass), and Matt Cameron (drums) -- are not terribly forthcoming in the new interviews Crowe conducted with them. This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to Vedder, who is clearly the band's most fascinating, influential, and enigmatic member -- yet reveals very little about himself, his creative process, what inspires his songs, etc, though it's interesting to watch him transition from a shy kid to a charismatic, risk-taking frontman. Maybe the members legitimately have no axes to grind with each other, want to keep things in the band copacetic, or are simply not the types to air their dirty laundry in public, which is probably healthy, but doesn't give you an insider's view into how the band works. The film also noticeably lacks any interviews with any of Pearl Jam's previous drummers, which would have been a great way to learn about the band's inner politics and past conflicts while providing an insight into how the band sees itself, but Crowe seems reluctant to include anything that might be seen as critical of his subjects -- never a good sign in a documentary.
But PJ20 has multiple glaring omissions, which are compounded by a strange mangling of the band's timeline. The film waits until near the end to talk about where the band members grew up, but doesn't have much to say about it. It seems to imply that Pearl Jam became popular after they had toured with Lollapalooza in 1992, but it was the popularity of their album Ten (released in August, 1991) that got them the slot. PJ20 shows the band bursting onto the charts, but says nothing about how this was only made possible by the success of Nirvana and "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and only brings up Kurt Cobain later to address whether he liked Pearl Jam or not. The band's video for the song "Jeremy" is discussed as a departure from their live-performance videos, but not about the many awards it won and its influence on the themes artists would address in future videos.
In addition, the film takes time to talk about the talent and influence of lead guitarist McCready, then neglects to do the same for the other members. This is even more strange because Gossard and Ament were the ones who originally formed Pearl Jam and were the driving force behind it and the previous bands they'd started. The film says almost nothing about Gossard and Ament's musical or personal relationship, and when Vedder eventually took over as the band's main creative voice, the transition is glossed over as being easy and natural, which is hard to imagine.
Pearl Jam fans will no doubt love seeing the great footage of the band's early performances and their electrifying live shows culled from over 1,200 hours of material, and the fans I watched the movie with clapped at the end. But over PJ20's two hours, there appears to be no through-line tying Pearl Jam's activities together over the past 20 years together, other than that they have integrity, have had a lot of things happen to them, and rock pretty hard. But even if you're only a passing Pearl Jam fan, you probably already knew that.