“[The Who’s] THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is fucking genius, this is just about us” – Random member of Pearl Jam midway through this doc
There’s lots to like about PEARL JAM TWENTY, particularly if you’re already a fan of the band. There’s lots of performances, some behind-the-scenes stories, and oodles of photos and clips from the last two decades.
Unfortunately, the film is plagued by the made very thing that drove it to happen in the first place – Cameron Crowe’s close connection with the band’s members. Almost since the band’s inception, in both his writing for music publications and use of their tunes in soundtracks, Crowe has aligned himself with all things PJ. They’re all friends, and it helps bring out a certain intimacy with the interview subjects, they all seem at ease bringing up even the more harrowing or tragic moments of their careers.
What really doesn’t work is the fact that noone during the production or editing phase asked Crowe to step back from his subject. We’ve got loads of name dropping without context, a refusal to properly situate members of the Seattle scene that weren’t directly band members with their respective outfits. Entire periods of their work is skipped over, particularly the latter period where their success has been far more maginal and niche. Yet it’s Crowe’s refusal to actual take a very brief moment and guide future watchers of this documentary that Chris Cornell eventually was in a band called Soundgarden, or that “Kurt” had a last name and a band called Nirvana. These type of throwaway assumptions, that every viewer will have the entirety of the Seatle 90s music ecosystem in their minds at all time is a sign of a clunky documentarian unable to thing of an audience that doesn’t share his same passion.
The film could have been a really interesting foray into that scene that erupted, and there’s touches of that throughout the film, but it all deflates without really giving either a decent overview or a compelling view of something we haven’t scene before. Perhaps the most revelatory moments, particularly from a musicianship standpoint, is the footage where the band (sans lead singer Vedder) are shown backing Neil Young on tour. The band rise to the task splendidly, clearly rising it up a notch to be backing their progenitor and musical godfather, rocking harder and with a tighter sound that almost all the concert footage throughout.
In the end, this is a perfectly satisfactory, slightly dry look at a band. The film does nothing particularly interesting with the form, and it clunky elements betray Crowe’s neophyte status when it comes to non-fiction cinema. PEARL JAM TWENTY isn’t mere sycophantic hagiography, but it remains a minor, frustrating work accomplished by a director far too close to his subject to give any real insight or objectivity in his presentation.