The giants of grunge receive a documentary love letter courtesy of long-time fan Cameron Crowe who featured two of the band’s members in his 1992 film Singles. Both parties have certainly changed since then with Crowe now a mainstream, Oscar-winning filmmaker (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and Pearl Jam having retreated to that strange world of cult college bands that receive die-hard support sans radio airplay and mainstream promotion (see: Dave Matthews Band, Phish). Pearl Jam Twenty reveals the grunge genre’s roots in the era of ’80s hair metal bands where, as members of both Green River and Mother Love Bone, future Pearl Jam’ers Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard were visually indistinguishable from their peers in, say, Poison and Motley Crue. The grunge aesthetic seems to take shape around 1990 and becomes a full-on fashion trend two years later with the mainstream explosion of Eddie Vedder and friends. Through interview footage both old and new, Crowe does a fantastic job illustrating the band’s initial reluctance to fame and the undefinable category that is “grunge”. Their early antics, which include a destructive performance at the premiere party for the aforementioned Singles, are punctuated by an anarchic attitude that is continued in a much more sophisticated form during the band’s battles with Ticketmaster years later (the footage of the band testifying at congressional hearings is fantastic as our country’s leaders provide first-hand illustrations of their squareness). Other notable happenings include a short feud with Kurt Cobain, interviews with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (everyone in the film seems really proud of the Soundgarden/Pearl Jam team-up project Temple of the Dog though the included music video from the project is more laughable than anything), and Vedder’s embracing of the band’s legacy in the form of a heartfelt performance of a song written by the deceased singer of Mother Love Bone. While the first ten years are given ample time in the spotlight, the band’s second decade is glossed over and explained through brief voice-overs that give no information as to how many albums they’ve released lately, how those albums have been received or what makes them different from their blockbuster debut. Maybe fans prefer to remember Pearl Jam in their heyday, or maybe the second half of their career is merely a bore. In either case, this is a touching film made for fans by a fan, others will gain very little enjoyment from it and should instead revisit 1996’s excellent Seattle music doc Hype! or the angst-laden comics of Peter Bagge.
Pearl Jam Twenty opens today at the Franklin Institute.