There is no shortage of music documentaries in the film world (three at this festival alone!) and this is a genre that fascinates me. Film and music are almost inseparable, one feeding off the other to create drama, tell a story and convey emotion, but there is something unique and intangible that happens when the camera is turned directly on those who make the music that creates a soundtrack to our lives. In Pearl Jam Twenty , Cameron Crowe has not only crafted a near-perfect music documentary, but a nearly perfect film; the kind where you walk in, hang out with five world-class musicians for two hours and walk out feeling inspired, informed and a little bit changed.
I came late to the Pearl Jam party, being at least 10 years behind in catching on to music of almost any kind. I often lament that I was too late to see Nirvana in concert, having only footage from MTV and 1991: The Year Punk Broke to extract those iconic, gamechanging moments from. I have never been able to catch Pearl Jam in concert, and am often frustrted by how little memory I have of the time when they were on the cutting edge, changing everything. In this way, Pearl Jam Twenty is a fan’s dream. It’s like sitting around a campfire with five wildly talented, notoriously private guys and listening to them wax poetic about how they simply like to make music, and still seem a little surprised that people like it so much.
It is difficult to believe that it has been 20 years since Ten , Pearl Jam’s first album, was released. What’s more difficult to believe is that it’s only been 20 years since Pearl Jam came together as a band, sky-rocketed to fame and, along with a few other notable musical successes, changed the face of rock. Cameron Crowe’s film chronicles the band’s creation and meteoric rise to fame, progression as artists, their survival of the Seattle alternative music scene, the fall out from milestone events such as Kurt Cobain’s death and the devastating Roskilde concert deaths. The film has been created from 30,000 hours of private and media footage culled from a vast number of sources to tell an intimate story of the band.
With this film, Cameron Crowe has done what no other director could possibly do: he’s let the music speak for itself. It is obvious that despite Crowe’s incredible journalistic approach and ability to step back from his subjects, he has made a very personal film. His tenderness and genuine admiration for the five artists who make up Pearl Jam comes through in every section, every voice over, every interview. He’s made a film that could only be made for fans, by a fan.
While there is, as noted, no shortage of music documentaries out there, there is a shortage of good ones — the films that truly represent the artists, their work and what it means to our lives and our culture. This, my friends, is one of the great ones, ready to go down in history with The Kids Are Alright , The Last Waltz and Don’t Look Back . It is both the ultimate monument to fans and perfect for people who are merely interested in music and all its crazy facets.
Pearl Jam Twenty opens in selected markets on September 23. For more on this wonderful film, check out this article written by the incredible Alan Cross. (It was an Ongoing History of New Music that first introduced me to the band and for that, sir, I will be eternally grateful.)