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Pearl Jam Twenty Review: Sittin' Butt Naked on a Porcupine Made of Concrete

By Dustin Rowles | Film | November 1, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | November 1, 2011 |

It took me longer than it should have to get around to reviewing Cameron Crowe’s documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, in part because I try to avoid nostalgia, which is just another form of self-indulgence, of pop-culture narcissism. Indulge too much, and you end up becoming your fucking parents, the get off my lawn guy. Because music is the most evocative medium, you’re more susceptible to falling down the rabbit hole of nostalgia with a documentary like Twenty, recalling the hundreds of miles you traveled to see shows, the countless bootleg tapes you bought through online message boards (none of which you own anymore), and the heartbreak and elation those many songs recall.

It’s a nasty business, this nostalgia, and for me, Pearl Jam holds a particular power, as the years between 1991 and 1996 were those years in which I was most passionate about music, when albums were a part of the fabric of my life and not just background music for another activity. It’s compounded by the presence of one of my favorite directors, Cameron Crowe who directs — and inserts himself into — Pearl Jam Twenty, appropriately enough since Crowe documented the rise of the Seattle scene at the time and, in a small way, helped to popularize it through his 1992 film, Singles.

As music documentaries go, this Twenty might do a number on you if you came of age in a certain period of time, and it does a masterful job of framing that nostalgia, constructing context around it, and feeding it back to us through the lens of older band members capable of providing a wizened perspective.It doesn’t have the sensationalized fervor of the rise and fall of Motley Crue, nor can it document a revolving door of band-member changes or bouts and drug and alcohol dependency, as the Foo Fighters doc did earlier this year; it is, instead, a heartfelt and entertaining chronicling of the lone surviving band of the grunge era.

Crowe starts in the beginning, with Green River, before quickly moving along to Mother Love Bone, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament’s glam-grunge band with Andrew Wood, the frontman who would later OD (what I didn’t know, or remember, was that he was kept alive in a coma for several days so his family and friends could say goodbye). It was six months after the death of Wood before Gossard and Ament would begin to record music again, making an instrumental demo that a guy from San Diego would add lyrics over (he procured the tape from Jack Irons, then the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers). His name was Eddie Vedder, who was working as a security guard at the time. Vedder flew to Seattle, and, after six days of rehearsal, Pearl Jam — originally Mookie Blaylock, after the basketball player — was formed. They released their first album, Ten (after Blaylock’s jersey number), two months before Nirvana’s Nevermind, but it was the success of Nirvana that helped to propel Pearl Jam into the mainstream, a place that the band — especially Vedder — was not particularly comfortable with.

The rest is mostly common knowledge to anyone that grew up on Pearl Jam: The pseudo-rivalry and subsequent friendship with Kurt Cobain; the release of that Temple of the Dog album, recorded with Chris Cornell and other members of Soundgarden as a tribute to Andrew Wood before Ten; the meteoric rise; the discomfort with fame; the fight with Ticketmaster; the controversial Grammy acceptance speech; and the waning interest in grunge overall. Pearl Jam remain the only burning embers of that ash, though now the band is more iconic than relevant, even if they do still put out great music.

How much Twenty might mean to you depends entirely on how much Pearl Jam does: it’s a well-done but not groundbreaking music documentary; there’s no new insights; and Crowe doesn’t add anything to the music documentary subgenre. But there is a lot of Pearl Jam music, a thorough inspection of Eddie Vedder’s emotional vulnerabilities and how it colors his lyrics, and in interesting look at how both Stone and Jeff — the heart and soul of Pearl Jam — view the band. They all seem like really good people who have managed to keep an level head, who have impressively navigated their success, and who are immensely comfortable with where they exist on the music spectrum today. It’s great goddamn music, too (except for Binaural, which was kind of crap) and as a means to document nostalgia, you could hardly ask for better.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.