Pearl Jam Twenty (2011)
Good gravy, why did grunge ever fade out?
Pearl Jam Twenty is a documentary about one of the biggest grunge acts to come out of Seattle in the late ’80s/early ’90s. First, they were known as Mother Love Bone, but disbanded after their lead singer died of an overdose. Then, they became Mookie Blaylock after recruiting a security guard named Eddie Vedder to take the reigns as lead vocalist. Finally, they dubbed themselves Pearl Jam after the real-life Mookie Blaylock decided that this world isn’t big enough for two Mookie Blaylocks, and they’ve been kicking ass ever since.
So, yeah, it’s been 20-freakin’-years since Ten came out. Just what you needed to make you feel like an old fart, huh? Like many of you, I imagine, I vividly remember the day that album entered into my life. It was 2002, I was a junior in high school, and in a search for new music to listen flesh out my overflowing CD wallet, I turned to the one guy who got me into music in the first place. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked him if Ten was as good as everyone said since I was still undecided about whether Eddie Vedder sounded awesome or annoying. With a look of disappointment that the question was ever asked, my musical life coach urged me to buy it immediately and to get Superunknown by Soundgarden while I was at it. A week or so later, the two albums arrived from good old Half.com, and those were the only two albums I listened to for the next year or so.
Nearly a decade later, I’ve got Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy ingrained in my DNA and they’re still as amazing as they were in high school. Not sure why I didn’t keep up with their next seven albums, but the funny thing about it is that even after all these years and all the songs I know by heart, it seems I knew next to nothing about the band I once obsessed over. I didn’t know about Mother Love Bone or the late Andrew Wood, didn’t know that the title for Ten was actually a shout-out to Mookie Blaylock (#10 for the New Jersey Nets), and, Jesus, Vedder was the only member of the band whose name I actually knew. As a Pearl Jam fan, I feel shame, but by the same token, these guys aren’t exactly fame whores either.
I’ll save my thoughts on Cobain’s overreaction to fame for the off-chance that I ever get to review Last Days, but much like Nirvana, Eddie and the boys have never been too keen on how famous they are. They’ve rarely made music videos (even though they’ve made some great ones,) they pretty much told the Grammy voters to go fuck themselves during their ’96 acceptance speech for Best Hard Rock Performance, and if they had it their way, they never would have left the podunk clubs of Seattle. I can already hear the echoes of, “Cry me a river, you get to make millions playing music for a living,” and while I partly agree, I can’t help but side with the band. On the one hand, fame is a risk you run when you start a band, but on the other, it must blow to be seen as a cash cow for the industry when all you ever wanted to do was play music because you love music, not because of the dollar signs attached. Look, until the day “Aiden Redmond” and “Cut The Crap Movie Reviews” are household names, I’ll never understand what it’s like to be in the public eye at all times and I can’t start throwing stones at the people who know it all too well.
Anyway, Pearl Jam’s reaction to all the world’s questions has generally been to hide in the attic and go play concerts. This is where Cameron Crowe comes in. A long-time friend of the band and brainchild of Citizen Dick, I don’t think there’s another film maker out there who could have gotten these kinds of interviews with the band reflecting on their experiences with one another and the world at large over the course of two decades. There aren’t a lot of bands that stay together for 20 years, and after some of the stuff they’ve gone through, whether it be the death of a front man or an outdoor concert that led to nine people being crushed to death, it’s pretty amazing that they’ve managed to stick it out this long and that Crowe got them to open up about it as much as they do. He also gets a crazy amount of access to never-before-seen footage from their first basement practice sessions to Eddie’s first demo reel that got him in the band, and the finished product is as much a greatest hits compilation as it is a comprehensive trip down memory lane that’ll come as news for even the most die-hard of fans.
Although the one thing I wasn’t crazy about is how Crowe keeps inserting himself into the band’s history and how their whole story starts off with how Crowe used to hang with Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament before they became the founding members of Pearl Jam. I get it in the sense that Crowe has a personal connection to the band, but it just seems self-important, like something Werner Herzog would do, and that’s an approach I’ve never been big on. But considering how this movie probably wouldn’t have happened without Crowe’s involvement and that these few moments do little to detract from the movie as a whole, it’s an easy gripe to overlook.
Folks, it’s practically impossible to find a band that only gets better with age, that can write songs that just as good as the stuff that got them famous in the first place, but it’s awesome to find a band that refuses to conform to what other people want them to be. They fought Ticketmaster, they took on George W. when it was mighty unpopular to do so, and they’re still making the music they want to make even if it doesn’t get them on the radio. Don’t get me wrong, Pearl Jam’s not the diamond the rough since there will always be great new bands making great new music, but the problem with a lot of bands is that they eventually stop being who they want to be and start becoming what the public wants them to be: other bands. I don’t know about you, but that sucks. You think Miles Davis cared about alienating his fans when he put out Bitches Brew? Hell to the no, and something tells me that if Miles tried to put that album out today, he’d have a much easier time selling out.
If you’ve never listened to Pearl Jam before, I’d still start with Ten before giving this a go, but it’s still a really cool behind-the-scenes look at a really interesting group of guys with a really interesting history behind, and ahead of, them. Sorry if I’ve sounded like a bonafide music snob, but it’s movies like these and bands like Pearl Jam that make me wish I’d been born a decade earlier. Yeah, Midnight in Paris tells me that’s no way to live, and I’m sure there were a ton of shitty bands flooding the airwaves by the time Pearl Jam made the cover of Rolling Stone, but the grunge era really was one unbelievable time to dig music. The only time I saw these guys live was in May of last year at Madison Square Garden, and even though they were good, what I would give to have seen them after Ten came out. Been a long time since Eddie’s been swinging from the rafters. No-freaking-fair that I had to grow up with The Backstreet Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone.