As Pearl Jam celebrates their 20 year anniversary, topping off numerous re-issues and tours is Cameron Crowe’s new documentary Pearl Jam 20. The film takes a close and candid look at the formation of the band, which rose from the ashes of hallowed Seattle band Mother Love Bone after the tragic death of lead singer Andy Wood. After guitarist Stone Goddard and bassist Jeff Ament received a stunning demo from San Diego-ite Eddy Vedder, the band was formed (under the original name “Mookie Blaylock” before settling on Pearl Jam) and began a meteoric rise to stardom.
Some of the most affecting footage occurs in the first half of the film, like when the band performs “Alive” at their second show ever in 1991. As a timid newcomer, Vedder’s vocals are amazingly powerful and convincing – proving the young band had the musicality and ambition to go as far as they would ever want. Soon enough Vedder would be climbing lighting rigs and balcony diving into the arms of rabid fans in footage that is still just as scary and shocking now as it was then.
Chris Cornell of Soundgarden also sheds light on the Temple of the Dog project where members of Soundgarden and the still-unnamed Pearl Jam united for songs in the memory of Andy Wood. Footage of Cornell and Vedder performing “Hunger Strike” and wrestling like luchadors on stage is a truly moving moment to watch.
As Pearl Jam quickly rose to widespread fame and notoriety in 1992, they immediately began to struggle with their commercial obligations and major label demands like music videos and inane interviews about what “grunge” really is. The band repeatedly states that they chose to “focus on the music” and build a career that can last among a vicious and unforgiving music business model.
Venturing through the band’s career, their fruitless battle against Ticketmaster in the mid-90’s is also addressed along with the catastrophe at the 2000 Roskilde festival that killed 9 concert goers. Emotionally heavy moments are eased with hilarious bits, such as the story of their endless list of excommunicated drummers and Stone Gossard discovering a dusty Grammy in the depths of his basement.
The film also briefly addresses the band’s off-and-on feud with Nirvana, with band members ultimately admitting that Cobain’s criticism of the band was motivating and inspirational. The ten second clip of Vedder and Cobain slow dancing at the Grammys will make any music fan sigh and wonder what could have been.
Pearl Jam 20 is full of highs and lows, candid interviews, fierce live performances, and endlessly interesting footage of the band’s early days. While the former ten years is absolutely more intriguing than the latter, the film is still one of the best music documentaries in recent memory, as well as a fitting tribute to the most enduring rock band of its generation.
A rock hard 4 stars out of 5