Pearl Jam Twenty – Wall Street Journal

How a Grunge Band Went from ‘Ten’ To ‘Pearl Jam Twenty’

Cameron Crowe’s history with the grunge scene predates “Singles,” the director’s 1992 romantic comedy about flannelled Seattle youth. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard says, “He’s known the band before we sold record one.” So Crowe was Pearl Jam’s natural choice to contribute a documentary film to their 20th anniversary efforts, which so far have included a music festival and coffee table book.

His movie, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and begins a limited release in theaters Friday. The general narrative–the band’s origins in the demise of Mother Love Bone, their sensationalized rivalry with Nirvana, their struggle with fame–will be familiar to most rock fans. However, Crowe fleshes out the highlights with the band’s personal recollections and choice scenes from some 3,000 hours of assembled archival footage, much of it unreleased. “In some of the footage, we were having more fun than I remember,” Gossard says, noting a scene in which he and Eddie Vedder are picking out the now familiar notes of the song “Daughter” on a tour bus. “That was the very beginning of that song. I can’t even remember that there was a camera.”

Mr. Crowe, who occasionally inserts himself into the movie by way of a voiceover, is one of several top-shelf directors weighing in with music documentaries this fall, including Martin Scorsese (George Harrison), Davis Guggenheim (U2) and Jonathan Demme (Neil Young). We recently spoke to him about securing a piece of “holy grail” footage, avoiding rock-doc clichés, and the notorious release party for “Singles,” in which a drunken Pearl Jam sabotaged the proceedings on MTV.

Where did you acquire most of the footage?

We had [producer and segment director] Barbara McDonough. Her job for about a year and a half was to find every possible source. Then there was a lot of stuff from band archivists who doubled as guitar techs and roadies. Barbara found this long rumored footage of Kurt Cobain and Eddie slow dancing at the MTV awards. That was probably the holy grail.

Who had it?

The guitarist in Hole was very correctly treasuring it and for a long time didn’t want to just put it out there. I think we just got lucky that enough time had passed.

Was Pearl Jam’s manager, Kelly Curtis, the one who offered you the job?

I was there for so many of those events in the past, so a natural conversation began to solidify. Three Christmases ago we realized that were actually doing it. People have gotten very used to a similar pattern in these movies. This story was different. It began with a tragedy [the overdose death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood] and it was about surviving that and a hundred other things that happened after.

I guess there’s an advantage in knowing exactly which filmmaking clichés you need to avoid.

It’s like a blues song. They’re all basically the same, and the classic rock tale goes like this: no hope of success, early outsider status, success happens, tragedy strikes, promise is over, beautiful memories remain. I always like the ones that weren’t that way. Like “Don’t Look Back,” which was a slice of life. Or Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” To me, the high water standard is [Scorcese’s Dylan film] “No Direction Home.”

Leaving your personal history with Pearl Jam aside, does it make you uncomfortable that your film is part of a broader marketing plan for this anniversary?

No. Of course I root for the band. I knew them as guys before there was even a Pearl Jam, so I always felt that was my greatest asset in making the movie. I don’t want to think about how it’s going to fit into how they celebrate their 20th anniversary. That’s Kelly’s world and it’s nothing I ever discussed with them. Because I know them, I was able to interview them at their homes and get the most unguarded version of an interview they’d given. That’s probably what I’m proudest of. I tried to make it a conversation among the band members, so you’re on the inside looking out. Too often, you get a marketing plan disguised as a film.

One of best parts of the film is seeing them behave badly at the “Singles” release party, where they’re mocking the audience and your film. Did you have to repair your relationship with the band after that?

I never spoke to Eddie about it until we were filming. You can see in the movie his eyes kind of flare, like, “Oh, now that you’ve got a camera on me we’re going to have our horrific ‘Singles’ party conversation?” Literally, it never came up. For years.

It was a taboo subject?

Hell yes it was a taboo subject. It was a total fiasco. We used to say to each other, “Well, nobody died.” Other than that, it was Altamont.

What scenes did you think twice about including in the movie?

There’s a very honest moment where Mike McCready, the guitarist, says that when the band started out it was Stone Gossard’s. And now the dynamic has changed and it’s Eddie’s band. It’s just startling in its matter-of-fact honesty. Last October we went out to Seattle and showed the movie to the band. Mike says that line and literally the air stopped in the room. The band’s there with their wives and girlfriends. It literally was still. Not a breath. And then a few minutes later in the film Stone describes the truth of that statement and everybody eased up. For those uncomfortable minutes I felt better, not worse, that I’d put some stuff like that in there. Jeff Ament, the bass player, had told me, “If you’re going to do this movie, make it like group therapy. I want to learn a little bit more about the band.”

What changes did they ask for?

A few shots here and there. Mostly, Eddie is a real stickler that the notes being played on the soundtrack are being played the same way on film. Also, there’s a shot of him stage diving where he thought he looked maniacal. I wrote him an email saying, “That look is one of my favorite things in the movie. That’s the look of a guy in an adrenaline bubble.” He wrote me back and said okay.

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal – John Jurgensen – September 23, 2011