Director Cameron Crowe is wonderfully talented. He understands what makes a great story arc. He knows how to make viewers think, develop characters and touch hearts. He also happens to be an enormous music fan -- though I have to say fan seems like a woefully inadequate description.
Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous is the semi-autobiographical tale of a teenage writer who gets to cover his favorite band for Rolling Stone and all the conflict that creates as he forms personal relationships with his idols. It's a story told with child-like wonder for flawed people capable of creating beautiful art that is unifying, and that carries over terrifically in Crowe's latest effort, Pearl Jam Twenty, a documentary chock full of rare, behind-the-scenes footage celebrating the iconic grunge band's 20 years together.
The rare footage is worth its weight in gold for hardcore fans of Pearl Jam, but the documentary should appeal to those with a more casual interest because of the way Crowe weaves music and backstory in with everything else.
Pearl Jam Twenty, which premiered in select theaters around the country in August and September and aired on PBS Friday as part of the long-running American Masters series, digs back before the inception of the band, looking at Temple of the Dog, Mother Love Bone and Andy Wood's influence on the group.
What makes it so effective is that it covers all that ground in a non-linear way -- interspersing cuts of Wood as the front man with a middle-aged Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready playing acoustic guitar in a European amphitheater.
What was so surprising was the pace at which it moved. Viewing it on PBS meant there were no commercials -- that two-hour recording on my DVR was a full two hours -- and I didn't once check my watch or the progress of the recording. Though I fancy myself a pretty devoted fan of the band -- Vitalogy was one of my first CDs growing up, I've seen them live five times, including over Labor Day weekend for their 20th anniversary concert -- I didn't expect to stay focused on their story for the entirety of two hours without my mind wandering once. Yet I did, even though I knew many of the bits and pieces of their tale. That's all Crowe and his vision.
Now, I can't even begin to pretend I can be remotely objective about this film. The subjects are too near and dear for me to provide what you might term a fair perspective on the project. But my Pearl Jam fandom does give me the authority to weigh in on whether Crowe has done a band that means so much to so many people justice. As you might guess, my answer is a resounding and unequivocal yes.
The bigger takeaway, though, is that even someone with little interest in Pearl Jam -- with little understanding of their place in the rock and roll universe -- can probably enjoy Pearl Jam Twenty. That's no small achievement.