Drawn from more than 1,200 hours of rare and never-before-seen footage, and directed by Cameron Crowe, “Pearl Jam Twenty” functions as the definitive portrait of the seminal rock band—and a celebration of the group’s twentieth anniversary.
“Pearl Jam Twenty” provides valuable insight into an often-enigmatic band
The band nearly breaks up after becoming the most popular group on the planet
Parallels between Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” and his PJ biopic run deep
When contemplating “Pearl Jam Twenty,” it’s helpful to contextualize the 2011 documentary first as a Cameron Crowe film. Think of it as “Almost Famous 2: More Famous-er.” In Crowe’s first rock film, he followed the fictional band Stillwater as it navigated the pitfalls of burgeoning stardom. But the movie ends before Stillwater actually makes it — we’re left to imagine the problems that will inevitably arise between singer Jeff Bebe and guitarist-with-mystique Russell Hammond in the years ahead.
In “Pearl Jam Twenty,” these issues take center stage, only this time the amiable arena-rock band in question happens to be one of the defining acts of ‘90s alternative rock. In reality, Pearl Jam’s meteoric rise to superstardom was so swift and extreme that it might have strained credibility had Crowe applied it to Stillwater’s fictional arc. Formed within months after the tragic death of singer Andrew Wood and the subsequent dissolution of Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam was initially guided by Mother Love Bone’s Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who stumbled into the discovery of a lifetime when they met a struggling singer-songwriter from San Diego named Eddie Vedder.
Just two years after its first-ever show, Pearl Jam was among the most popular rock bands in the world, with a 1991 debut album, “Ten,” that’s been certified platinum 13 times. The story after that has been told many times — faced with a rush of hype related to the grunge phenomenon, and an equally powerful backlash fueled by the indie-scene politics of the era, Pearl Jam retreated from view.
Over time, this strategy proved to be wise, given how few of its ‘90s alt-rock contemporaries have survived, both professionally and personally, over the years. But it’s also made Pearl Jam more enigmatic than a band of its stature typically is. Even if it does come off as a carefully PR-managed portrait, “Pearl Jam Twenty” remains one of the more illuminating glimpses behind the flannel.
Crowe was an early supporter going back to the Mother Love Bone days, and his 1993 Rolling Stone cover story might be the best piece ever written about Pearl Jam. You can feel how this familiarity relaxes this notoriously press-wary band on film, prompting Vedder especially to open up like never before.
The wealth of intimate video is particularly valuable in charting Pearl Jam’s tumultuous early years, when its skill as a live band noticeably improved with every gig.
But the strength of “Pearl Jam Twenty” isn’t merely that it tells you the band’s story. Crowe has access to so much wonderful footage that he can actually show it to you. The wealth of intimate video is particularly valuable in charting Pearl Jam’s tumultuous early years, when its skill as a live band noticeably improved with every gig.
One startling moment occurs during a tour in early 1991 back when the quintet was still known as Mookie Blaylock. Prompted by a brutish security guard roughing up fans, Vedder explodes out of his shy shell and discovers his raging on-stage persona in the process. From there, Crowe offers glimpses of Pearl Jam’s rise with the cinematic sweep of a biopic — a club gig from Germany in early 1992 where the audience seemingly knows the words to every song, a legendary acoustic concert in Zurich that predated its “MTV Unplugged” performance by two months, a songwriting session on a tour bus during which Vedder and Gossard work through an early version of the future classic “Daughter.”
By 1994, Pearl Jam was the rare rock band capable of selling nearly a million albums per week. The band found itself in a hurricane of fame and pressure. Vedder dealt with a stalker who literally tried to drive a car into his house. How the band survives the crush of celebrity dominates the movie’s back half. Guitarist Mike McCready acknowledges the band came close to breaking up. Reflecting on Vedder’s wish to be more DIY like Fugazi, McCready reasons (rightly) that Pearl Jam will never be that band. He recalls asking Vedder pointedly, “Are you embarrassed by us?”
Ultimately, Pearl Jam endured by cannily bowing out of the mainstream rock game — which would soon implode at the dawn of the 21st century anyway — and instead transforming itself into one of the world’s most beloved cult bands. The group has even been likened to the Grateful Dead, though only in the sense that its fan base has stayed intensely devoted, no matter the changing musical winds.
Being a member of the PJ tribe will no doubt make this film seem more interesting. But just as “Almost Famous” seduced a generation that didn’t grow up listening to Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s, “Pearl Jam Twenty” will hold value for anyone curious about an era in which uncompromising, iconoclastic bands that looked and sounded like Pearl Jam could, in fact, take over the world.
Ten key Pearl Jam songs to mark the band’s decades-long career. Listen to the full playlist on Amazon Music:
1. “Alive” (1991)
The band’s first hit, and an early indication that it was the classic rock-loving counterpart to Nirvana’s punk puritanism in the Seattle music scene.
2. “Black” (1991)
The power ballad from “Ten” that Pearl Jam famously refused to release as a single, though it became one of the band’s most popular songs anyway.
3. “Porch” (“MTV Unplugged” version) (1992)
Even in an acoustic format, Pearl Jam’s athleticism as a live act was evident from the beginning, as was singer Eddie Vedder’s do-or-die passion.
4. “Yellow Ledbetter” (1992)
This Hendrix-inspired anthem isn’t just Pearl Jam’s most famous B-side, it’s probably the most well-known B-side of the alternative era.
5. “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” (1993)
A striking example of Vedder stepping out of Pearl Jam’s heavy riffing image with a folkie character study.
6. “Corduroy” (1994)
Of all the memorable riffs in the Pearl Jam canon, this might be the greatest.
7. “Nothingman” (1994)
Another instance of Vedder (in collaboration with bassist Jeff Ament) showing a deft hand with sensitive balladry.
8. “Sometimes” (1996)
The unusually muted opening track to “No Code” expresses Vedder’s anti-fame philosophy succinctly.
9. “Amongst the Waves” (2009)
A powerful late-career rocker that foregrounds Vedder’s love of surfing as a personal ethos.
10. “Just Breathe” (2009)
This gentle love song, later covered by Willie Nelson, has become an unexpected wedding staple.
Steven Hyden is the author of “This Isn’t Happening,” “Twilight of the Gods,” “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me,” and (with Steve Gorman) “Hard to Handle.” His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Billboard, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Grantland, The A.V. Club, Slate and Salon. He is currently the cultural critic at UPROXX. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and two children.