Cameron Crowe's rock doc Pearl Jam Twenty, which premiered last night at a packed Tower Theater, fittingly begins with aerial shots of Seattle. Then it quickly cuts to footage from a local television interview of the band when it was just starting out.
Frontman Eddie Vedder sits with his band mates wearing nothing but a black bra. He smiles at the camera, a wide grin with a front tooth missing. The title card splashes onto the screen, a blend of Pearl Jam riffs fill the soundtrack, and we're instantly taken back to the days of flannel, the death of hair metal bands, and the rise of the 1990s' greatest goddamn rock band.
Clearly, this movie is for Pearl Jam fans. Made by a Pearl Jam fan. And it fucking rocks.
Directed by Cameron Crowe, the film chronicles the band's inception, taking us from Vedder and crew's seemingly overnight worldwide acclaim through all the ups and downs that followed, including their idealistic clash with Ticketmaster, their uncompromising political views, and even the tragedy that saw nine of Pearl Jam's fans crushed to death during a show.
PJ20 is more of a love letter to Pearl Jam than your typical inside-story rock doc. It's no The Kids Are Alright. But it comes pretty close, mixing in archival performance footage with personal, never-before-seen home movies from the band. And much like Pearl Jam's music, the film is an amalgam of raw emotion and distilled passion.
The film's first half traces the band's genesis via the perfect marriage of tragedy, loss, and providence when -- after their original singer Andy Wood dies of a drug overdose -- the surviving members are introduced to a short, quiet, and shy California surfer named Eddie just six months later.
The film also features current interviews with Chris Cornell, and gives us a glimpse at the impregnable bond that existed between Seattle bands of the '90s, and the healthy competition that drove the better ones to icon status. It briefly revisits the short-lived feud between Pearl Jam and Nirvana. But we also see how then and now, the feud was silly. And in one of the film's most poignant moments, Crowe shows footage of Vedder slow dancing with a pajama-clad Kurt Cobain backstage during the MTV Music Awards, followed by the April 5, 1994 concert where Vedder announces to the audience that Cobain had tragically taken his own life.
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The film also gets to the meat of the band's very real struggles with stardom and the loss of anonymity. But it reveals the band as artists too. Pearl Jam is a group of musicians fully devoted to their craft, feeling most alive when on stage.
In one of the cooler moments, Stone Gossard describes lead guitarist Mike McCready's often-underrated talent as "giving into these jolts," when he goes off on his patented lengthy guitar solos. The film also chronicles the band's Spinal Tap-like struggles to keep a drummer throughout the years until settling with Matt Cameron. And then there's Ed.
Eddie Vedder, the mythic man with the enigmatic voice whose inner rage, ardor and passion reminded us that a rock star could be intelligent and introspective, while still being a total balls-out frontman. spills out onto the screen. From his initial shyness to later performances where he insanely hung from concert venue scaffolding, to him fully embracing his place in the rock universe as The Fucking Man, Crowe gives us a full-on evolutionary glimpse into Pearl Jam's leader.
Vedder's early reluctance is on full display here, as he wrestles with being Wood's replacement, as well as his inexperience with being front and center at gigs. It isn't until an incident at a club when a venue security guard gets rough with some concertgoers that we finally see Eddie Vedder as the world would soon know him. He goes from silent to righteous indignation, admonishing the security guy and not giving a shit that he's built like a house. The metamorphosis is instant and visceral.
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In interviews with the older, wiser Vedder, we see the artist come full circle. When Crowe hands him the original demo cassette he sent Jeff Ament and the guys, still marked with his old telephone number, they joke about calling the "young Eddie." Vedder then chuckles and says, "Tell him to be careful. And to hold on. Hold on."
Pearl Jam's influence is undeniable. Eddie's voice launched a thousand shitty wannabe bands. (Unfortunately, they unwittingly gave birth to that shitstick Scott Stapp's career.) And while fading from the mainstream charts, the band's music is still better than anything going today.
Cameron Crowe's PJ20. Tuesday, September 20, through Wednesday, September 28. Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami. Tickets cost $10. Call 305-642-1264 or visit miami.slated.com.