Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty (Vinyl Films) is the Platonic model of a fan-service rock documentary. If you love the music of Pearl Jam, the Seattle-based band now entering its third decade of existence, this two-hour chronicle will be as thrilling as a joyride in Eddie Vedder's tour van—which the authenticity-obsessed Vedder has been known to drive to gigs alone while the rest of his comfortably successful band takes a plane. If you haven't really thought about Pearl Jam since giving your brother a cassette of its first album, Ten, for Christmas in 1991, I'm not sure Crowe's film will make you slap your forehead over all you've missed. Still, this is a lovingly assembled tribute to the career of a working band that's still very much, to quote the title of its most iconic hit, "Alive."
Crowe, who was a rock journalist in Seattle at the time of Pearl Jam's rise in the early '90s, still approaches music with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his teenage fanboy self, as played by Patrick Fugit in the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (2000). Remember when Billy Crudup's character Russell, a featherbrained rock star, leapt from the roof of a house into a swimming pool after informing the cheering crowd below, "I am a golden god!"? Though that scene looked at rock 'n' roll self-mythologizing with affectionate irony, a part of Crowe clearly does believe in rock 'n' roll transcendence. Vedder's self-presentation is the opposite of golden-god vainglory—he's self-laceratingly emo to the core—but the archival clips of his youthful concert antics are downright Dionysian. Handsome and flowing-haired, Vedder would spontaneously scale the lighting rigs at shows, sometimes hanging at least 20 feet above the stage like a kid from monkey bars, or leap from high speakers to surf the ecstatic crowd.
Crowe traces the roots of Pearl Jam to its predecessor Mother Love Bone, a late '80s group formed by guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament with the singer Andy Wood. Wood, a huge personality who, in concert clips, seems as much glam as grunge, died of a heroin overdose in 1990. After receiving an audition tape from Vedder, Ament and Gossard re-formed as Mookie Blaylock—the name of a professional basketball player—then, for rights reasons, changed their name to Pearl Jam (a moniker whose origin and meaning has been the subject of many rumors, some spread by Vedder himself).
If there's anything that sets the band apart for a nonfan it's Vedder's voice, an anguished, earthy growl that's been much imitated (Creed) but never equaled. Pearl Jam's music can be somber, at times bombastically so, but Crowe's presentation of the band does let in flashes of wit: an interview describing the band's high turnover rate in drummers is intercut with clips from This Is Spinal Tap's parade of self-destructing percussionists.
Crowe has assembled some top-drawer ephemera—old show posters, home movies, and candid backstage footage—but he overestimates his audience's patience for present-day talking-head interviews with the band members (who seem like nice enough guys but who, with the exception of the brooding, oracular Vedder, don't exactly set the camera on fire). Conversely, Crowe speeds too quickly through the parts of Pearl Jam's story that provide this gentle valentine of a movie with some conflict and drama: for example, the band's 1994 boycott of Ticketmaster in protest of price-gouging practices, or the events of the 2000 Roskilde festival in Denmark, when nine fans were crushed to death by a crowd surging forward toward the stage.
But not everyone in Pearl Jam Twenty shares Crowe's tendency to lionize. Though the film makes relatively few gestures toward contextualizing the band's place in the music of the '90s (the band's members scorn the term grunge as a reductive buzzword), there are a few heartrending clips of a very young Kurt Cobain on MTV, smoking as he talks to an off-camera interviewer about his ambivalent rivalry with Eddie Vedder. "I really like him, I think he's a really nice person," Cobain insists. "I just have always hated their band."