For all the gossipy fun of VH1's Behind the Music, the program killed the public's taste for detailed histories of rock bands. Tales of excess -- focusing on egos, drugs, alcohol, and sex -- became the norm. One of the best things about Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty is that it foregoes tabloid sensationalism in favor of explaining the cultural, personal, and artistic forces that came together to produce one of the most-influential bands of the grunge era -- all the while letting the guys in the band speak for themselves.
The movie spends nearly its first quarter painting a portrait of the rich and supportive Seattle music scene of the late '80s; it was a time when bands like Soundgarden, the Melvins, and dozens of others did their best to support each other creatively and financially, as opposed to the bands in New York and L.A., who we are told would go out of their way to stab each other in the back. If nothing else, Pearl Jam Twenty would be invaluable as a look at this unique moment in rock history.
But thankfully, it's much more than a lecture in Grunge History 101. By explaining how the death of Mother Love Bone's lead singer Andrew Wood broke the hearts of his bandmates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, Crowe delivers a powerful portrait of how friends deal with grief. Then, when Eddie Vedder sends in an audition tape for Ament and Gossard's next project, we watch as their lives change again -- this time for the better (at least more often than not).
Even then, Crowe takes his time. Where most filmmakers would jump at the chance to revel in a band enjoying their first taste of mega-success, he patiently explains how Vedder slowly earned the trust and respect of his bandmates and the rest of the Seattle scene by paying tribute to Wood's memory, and by quickly proving himself as a formidable frontman in his own right, as well as a talented lyricist.
With access to hundreds of hours of private footage, Crowe deftly selects moments that keep this emotionally rich tale alive. There's an affecting mix of history and immediacy through much of the film, a tone achieved in large part thanks to the fact that Gossard, Ament, Vedder, and fellow bandmate Mike McCready don't seem particularly nostalgic about these early years. They're all funny, honest, and sentimental in their own way, but none of them are pining for the tumultuous, heady times when they first played for 100,000 people or got to perform on MTV's Headbangers Ball.
Unafraid to share some of the band's darkest moments, the movie contains footage of a dreadful gig they played to hype the opening of Singles, a romantic comedy directed by Cameron Crowe that Pearl Jam appeared in, and the band members talk openly about how the shifting power dynamics -- Gossard was the undisputed leader early on, but Vedder slowly emerged as the overseer of the band's identity -- led to tensions that nearly ended the group.
All of this is presented with such affection for the band members that the movie will work for viewers too young or too old to have an attachment to grunge in general or Pearl Jam specifically. You'll grow to be interested in them as people, even if you didn't grow up with their songs as the soundtrack of your teenage years.
After the artistic dead end of Elizabethtown, it's a kick to see Cameron Crowe recharge his creative batteries by going back to his rock-journalist roots and making documentaries about musicians. His Elton John film, The Union, was a small but warmly affectionate look at the legendary performer as he created an album with one of his idols, Leon Russell. Pearl Jam Twenty, however, is more ambitious than The Union without being any less enamored of its subjects. Clear-eyed, warmhearted humanism is what Crowe has always done best, and Pearl Jam Twenty proves Crowe hasn't entirely abandoned his muse. For that reason, it plays as well for movie lovers as it does for music fans.