Watching Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, I couldn’t escape the conclusion, based on Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, and Stone Gossard’s remarks, that the band thinks, “So, like, one of our best friends OD’d, we sent a tape to a surfer dude with a great voice, we jammed, and suddenly topless chicks at Lollapalooza were screaming ‘TEMPLE OF THE DOG!’ at us. Then things got complicated.”
Another example of his fascination with the privileged, artist-approved moment, Crowe’s discursive documentary eschews narrative — it avoids even a point of view. I don’t know what Pearl Jam “means” other than that they became reluctant avatars of grunge, reacted in part to the publicity by fighting a global leviathan, then — well, I’m not sure; among its other problems is no conclusion. Like Scorsese’s George Harrison, which elided the singer-guitarist’s most compelling paradoxes, Pearl Jam Twenty doesn’t even bother to follow the most conventional if reductive of narrative tricks: using biography to illuminate artistic creation. Why did Pearl Jam include an accordion-anchored dada exercise called “Bugs” on 1994’s Vitalogy? How did the band reconcile its punk and post-punk covers (Talking Heads! Dead Boys! Split Enz!) and producers (Mitchell Froom engineer Tchad Blake) and the studiousness with which it massaged classic rock tropes? The answer to a sympathetic non-fan like me is obvious: Pearl Jam took Neil Young’s ethos seriously. Despite five minutes of air time to the Mirrorball collaboration and an estimable if unsupported preface explaining how Seattle’s weather forced music devotees into loving classic rock, disco, New Wave, and pop with equal fervor, Crowe doesn’t even get Vedder or Gossard to admit that, if you’re a band whose collective record collection is so rich, then, to quote Young, it’s all one song. He will not allow for the possibility that in the last five years Pearl Jam has recorded their richest work; 2006’s eponymous album and 2009’s Backspacer are the sounds of fortysomething men with the confidence to winnow their influences into a recognizable, quietly weird stamp. Pearl Jam Twenty doesn’t document: it’s inept hagiography.