Pearl Jam Twenty: Toronto Review

Peal Jam Twenty still - 2011
A reverential retrospective of a band that inspires deep love.

Cameron Crowe returns to his rock journalist roots to explore the enduring popularity of Pearl Jam.

The rock documentaries with the greatest staying power speak entirely through performance or strip away the layers of public persona to reveal out-of-the-spotlight dynamics. Pearl Jam Twenty doesn’t fall into either category, but Cameron Crowe’s feature doc — receiving its world premiere at the Toronto festival — is among his most effective and deeply felt work.

Going back to his rock journo roots, he’s fashioned a retrospective that fits neatly into the band’s ongoing celebration of its two-decade career. As official stories go, the doc reflects the same profound affection that infused Crowe’s tender Almost Famous. If it grows more cursory and conventional as it proceeds, that probably won’t dismay the band’s ardent followers, who are sure to turn out for the brief theatrical release — a one-day international event on Sept. 20 followed by a weeklong limited run stateside. The film makes its TV debut soon after, as part of PBS’ American Masters series on Oct. 21.

As a big-screen experience, the film more than honors the group’s anthemic power while providing an intimate look at the Seattle quintet. Crowe and his two nimble editors, Chris Perkel and Kevin Klauber, have orchestrated archival footage from a wide range of sources, frontman Eddie Vedder among them, and concert excerpts are well identified for DIY band historians in the audience.

Intercut with the vintage material are present-day interviews in which the central foursome (à la Spinal Tap, drummers have come and gone) muse on the 20 years they’ve traveled together. They muse separately; other than in performance clips and a few fleeting backstage sequences, there’s no onscreen interaction. In their interviews, guitarist Stone Gossard and bass player Jeff Ament each allude to their early-days personality clash, but the film offer no real evidence of how that played out.

Crowe wisely anchors Pearl Jam Twenty in the fertile Seattle scene of the late 1980s and Mother Love Bone, Gossard and Ament’s band with Andy Wood, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Pearl Jam was built on the ashes of that on-the-cusp group, a fact that the band and the film bring full circle with emotional impact.

The director’s connection to ’90s Seattle as a fan and a journalist is clear, especially in his look at the commoditization of “grunge” — a label none of the Emerald City’s musicians embraced — and in his exploration of the collaborations and friendly rivalries among such seminal acts as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. The latter’s Chris Cornell delivers cogent insights in his contemporary interview, and there’s terrific footage of a particularly acrobatic duet between him and Vedder.

Exactly how Southern California surfer Vedder made it onto the radar of the devastated survivors of Mother Love Bone is glossed over, but the film succinctly traces his arc from tentative outsider to full-fledged, if skeptical, rock star. In one of the more memorable sequences, Stone, who ceded the role of bandleader to the initially shy but instantly charismatic Vedder, conducts a brief tour through the memorabilia-free Zen of his home.

As Crowe moves into summing-up mode, the film loses energy — until its final, extended concert sequence. And even as the group’s intelligence, likability and soulfulness come through, there’s an unavoidable sense of the self-congratulatory in the looking-back perspective that shapes the documentary. Every rock act possesses a mysterious alchemy that becomes a kind of mythology; as a portrait of one of the biggest bands in the world, Pearl Jam Twenty doesn’t so much capture that alchemy as describe it. But it does so with passion, and even the unconverted will find a convincing case for the band’s longevity, popularity and influence.

Opens: Tuesday, Sept. 20 (Abramorama)
A Vinyl Films presentation in association with Monkeywrench Inc. and Tremolo Prods.
Writer-director: Cameron Crowe
Producers: Kelly Curtis, Cameron Crowe, Morgan Neville, Andy Fischer
Executive producer: Michele Anthony
Director of photography: Nicola B. Marsh
Creative producer: Barbara McDonough
Editors: Chris Perkel, Kevin Klauber
No rating, 120 minutes