When I think about it, I'm still surprised that of all the bands from the "alternative" scene in the 1990s, only three have had any staying power: Radiohead, Foo Fighters, and Pearl Jam*. Of the three, Radiohead is more respected for their influence than their presence on rock radio, whereas Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters regularly make the rotation with the likes of The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Journey, Tom Petty, and... name any other perennial "classic rock" radio band.
So we come to 2011, where there are documentaries about the careers of Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters up to this point: Foo Fighters: Back and Forth and Pearl Jam Twenty. I've watched part of Back and Forth and enjoyed what I saw so far, but I gravitated towards PJ20 because of one name: Cameron Crowe.
Even a passing interest in a band like Pearl Jam can be augmented by the presence of an interesting director with a passion to tell their story. Cameron Crowe, rock journalist turned director who has, to this point, only made on movie I haven't seen (Elizabethtown) and enjoyed, has the added benefit of having known the members of the band from the very beginning. Before the beginning, in fact - Crowe moved to Seattle after making Say Anything, and met Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament when they were still in Green River. Then they started Mother Love Bone, which is where Pearl Jam Twenty begins.
There is an unwitting parallel between Back and Forth and Pearl Jam Twenty: both films devote their opening sections to the deaths that began the bands as we know them now. For Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl talks at length about the final months of Cobain's life, and for Pearl Jam, Gossard, Ament, and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell relive the drug overdose of Mother Love Bone lead singer Andrew Wood. Had Wood not died, there may have been no Pearl Jam, and we might instead be watching a film about the fortunes of Mother Love Bone, but his passing was the catalyst that brought Gossard, Ament, Mike McCready, and drummer Dave Krusen together to form Mookie Blaylock (later renamed Pearl Jam). All they needed was a singer, and through former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, they met Eddie Vedder.
What's startling about Pearl Jam Twenty is how much footage exists of the early days of the new band, including interviews with Vedder that may well have been conducted by Crowe. There's a wealth of material from the period between Temple of the Dog and when Pearl Jam recorded Ten that I had no idea even existed, and it fills in missing pieces from present day interviews with the band (twenty-plus years later). It's as though Crowe was granted access to the personal vaults of everyone in and who knew Pearl Jam for the entirety of their career, and he weaves together footage from 1990, 94, 98, 2003, 2006, and 2010/1 effortlessly to tell their story.
The band members are candid about their struggles, their disagreements, and the changes in their creative process over the years in a way that you don't see in many music documentaries (at least from bands that are still together). There's a level of discomfort in Gossard's voice when he describes his diminishing role as songwriter from Vs. to Vitalogy, and his admission that the band is primarily directed by Vedder now is laced with a twinge of frustration. Their frustration over losing the fight with Ticketmaster (including footage of Gossard and Ament clearly annoyed that the Congressional hearing they were invited to became alternately condescending and fawning). I had always wondered whether the footage of Eddie Vedder climbing up the stage in the "Evenflow" video was a regular component of the shows, and from the montage in the film it's clear that he was frequently subjecting himself to even more dangerous climbs, to the chagrin of Ament.
Crowe (who included Ament, Gossard, and Vedder in his film Singles) periodically appears on-camera as well as conducting interviews, providing his own testimonial about the Seattle scene and the connection he has with Pearl Jam. The film does (to some degree) try to put to rest the idea that Kurt Cobain "hated" Pearl Jam, with the key piece of evidence being an interview where he talks about having spoken to Eddie Vedder a few times on the phone and finding that he liked him as a person. When Crowe asks the present day Vedder about the conversations, he replies "I can remember his voice... but I don't recall what we talked about" which is a strangely poignant moment in the film.
I suppose it's fair to say that Pearl Jam Twenty works even if you aren't a devotee of the band, and it did deepen my appreciation for the work that's gone into keeping the band together for twenty years. Accordingly, I recommend the film openly to people who are only passing fans of the band, or who have some memory of the events covered in the film. It's a "warts and all" approach that doesn't backfire in the way that Phish: Bittersweet Motel does, and the candid nature of the people involved coupled with the wealth of archival material brings about an intimate portrait of a band I've always seen at a distance. If Crowe brings this level of quality to We Bought a Zoo, he'll have two great films in one year. Quite a feat.
* It is true that bands like Bush and Soundgarden are currently back together, but in terms on consistency of releasing albums, touring, and being recognizable in the public eye, I think it would be fair to say that even Beck - who has technically been around just as long - wouldn't meet that criteria.