News Column

Cameron Crowe's 'Pearl Jam Twenty' airing on VH1 this weekend

October 9, 2013


Oct. 09--It was just over two decades ago that MTV began bombarding its viewers with the sounds of Seattle's grunge movement, featuring the angst-ridden anthems and grinding guitars of the scene's most pivotal trail-blazers: Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

For me, the music still resides in a nice, cushy corner of my heart. I may never be able to let it go.

After all, few bands in rock history have made a more immediate and tangible impact on the contemporary musical landscape than those flannel-wearing trendsetters did at a time when mainstream radio was awash in the hair metal of Poison and Def Leppard.

But seemingly within hours of the release of Nirvana's anarchic, rage-fueled single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- and its twisted, anti-pep-rally video -- the rules had changed.

Artifice was devalued; pure, raw emotion became king.

Just as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Pink Floyd, the Doors and so many others survived absurdity to earn integrity, affecting the collective consciousness by spearheading a unilateral force that united a single counterculture in the mid-'70s, the '90s were my rock 'n' roll revolution.

I was reminded of this fact after stumbling upon writer/director Cameron Crowe's 2011 documentary "Pearl Jam Twenty" on Netflix over the weekend. It comes to TV this weekend, airing on VH1 at 10 p.m. Saturday.

Part of me wishes I had seen it sooner but, nevertheless, the film successfully jogged my memory of exactly how that period of untied combat boots, knit caps, unkempt hair and walls of visceral distortion captivated the rock world.

Some might say this movie is a fan-only production. I tend to think of it as a reverently assembled tribute to the career of a working band that's still very much, to quote the title of Pearl Jam's most iconic hit, "Alive."

Crowe traces their roots to predecessor Mother Love Bone, a late '80s group formed by guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament with singer Andy Wood. Wood, a huge personality who, in concert footage, seems as much glam as grunge, died of a heroin overdose in 1990.

The resulting search for a new frontman led to an audition tape from a young Californian named Eddie Vedder, and once he joined the reconstituted lineup -- which also included lead guitarist Mike McCready and a revolving door of drummers until they finally settled on former Soundgarden member Matt Cameron -- the skies were quite literally the limit.

How Pearl Jam dealt with their sudden rise to popularity, and the explosion of the Seattle music scene in general, is the subject of some of the most revealing interviews.

Crowe dutifully covers well-known points in the band's history, including Vedder's early feud with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, the group members' appearance before a Congressional subcommittee as they protested Ticketmaster service charges, and the death of nine fans crushed by the crowd at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2000.

That particular event forced the group to reexamine how it operated, and why. The reflection, and remorse, shown by Vedder and company is striking.

But the film details all of these circumstances with starry-eyed precision, stringing together one remark-able archival clip after another, which captures the majesty of this phenomenal live act, as well as some of the singer's most jaw-dropping, free-fall stage dives.

Their flinty independence and brawny, expansive sound, in songs like "Jeremy" and "World Wide Suicide," remain intact, as the group consistently fills arenas without chart-topping albums, commanding a fan devotion relished by the likes of, say, jam-band frontrunners Phish.

With its intimacy and (this can't be emphasized enough) superb hi-def quality, "Pearl Jam Twenty" is two hours of compelling rediscovery, especially if you got even a whiff of the grunge-soaked sea change of the '90s.


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