‘Pearl Jam: Twenty’ is a film documenting the origins, and first two decades, of rock band Pearl Jam. I used to be a really solid PJ fan for a few years, being more and more engrossed with their output from their second album, ‘vs.’ up until their fifth one, ‘Yield’, which left me wanting.
A close friend of mine is slowly learning to enjoy Pearl Jam. I still remember when they released their first double CD sets of live shows way back in 2000 – how he just couldn’t stand them then, but was envious of their fans, because of all the material the band was releasing. He would have relished those many live albums if he had been into them.
Through many years of exposure via his favourite radio station, he’s become accustomed to their sound and actually enjoys a few of their singles now. He gradually became intrigued enough with them that he decided to buy himself this documentary on DVD, thinking that it was time that he explored the band a bit.
He also gave me the film for my birthday, so we agreed to watch it together. We have a history of tripping on a few key bands together, at virtually the same time. The many conversations and music exchanges we’ve had over Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Genesis and many others remain very fond memories. I figured that Pearl Jam was a viable new bonding experience.
So we finally watched the film, fuelled mostly by his eagerness to watch it; I have been off the PJ bandwagon for many years now, and not even their older albums intrigue me at this point, so I was in no hurry. But I had heard exceptionally good things about the film, and since it is directed by Cameron Crowe (the perfect candidate in my opinion! ), I felt it was as good an idea as any.
Unfortunately, the documentary also left me wanting. While it is a good overview of the band and it is well-made, I got to the end of it not feeling like I understand the band’s history, dynamics or its members all that much more than I did going in. It felt like I could have gotten more out of a Wikipedia entry, quite frankly.
It started off nicely, giving us a quick but substantial overview of the Seattle scene and the band’s origins. Then it spent the first 90 mins covering the first few years, the hype and the overwhelming success. Not bad, except that it proceeded to breeze through the second decade in the final 25 mins or so, leaving us with only a sketchy impression of what took place. Just the fact that we are told that they have 10 albums, but only a few are ever referred to is indicative of the film’s problem.
The great thing, however, is that there is an abundance of candid interviews with the band members. Pearl Jam’s story is not just narrated to us by a detached voice; we get a bird’s eye view of the band in some fashion. Unfortunately, we never get a sense that they were asked the hard questions – they always appear to be talking in generalities or only touching the surface. Which is a shame, because they’re made out to be down-to-earth guys, and one wants to know more. But we don’t.
I was trying to recall the Rush documentary ‘Beyond the Lighted Stage’, because that one felt more complete. I wanted to remember what made that one feel so alive, even though it’s another band that I’m only somewhat into. I think it’s partly due to the fact that we explore the members more in detail (with three instead of five, it’s obviously easier), but another thing that probably helped is that we see the band members together in interviews and in private situations – not just on stage.
I think that may be it. With ‘Twenty’ we only see the members each on their own, aside for concert or archival footage, so we never see them play off of each other and we don’t really get a sense of how they are as a team, even though some of them discuss it a little bit individually. Perhaps they weren’t able to do this due to scheduling reasons, but it’s a big loss to the film – as much, if not more so than the personal history of each members (which also received very little attention).
In the end, we get a very average overview of the band and their career – not even their place in music history. It’s a good start for a Pearl Jam novice, or for die-hard fans who want a video of the band, but that’s about it. As a tribute to twenty years together, it lacks the celebratory side that I think the band deserves – whether you like them or not.