Join David Simon Cowell and I after the jump as we discuss Cameron Crowe’s new documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty.
The Dilemma: My immediate reaction upon watching Pearl Jam Twenty was: I need to go listen to Pearl Jam right now. After that, I need to see if they’re playing live anywhere nearby anytime soon. And after that, I thought I might even need to reevaluate the quality of their post-Vitalogy music.
Quickly, though, I began to feel like I had been brain-washed by Cameron Crowe. Because Pearl Jam Twenty is not a documentary – it’s a fan-boy video made by a pal of the band. Worse than that, it’s not even a well-made fan-boy video.
Music documentaries as a genre are not known for their even-handedness or objectivity. And I don’t believe that documentaries have an inherent responsibility to tell both sides of a story any more than a non-doc film does. But Jesus Christ, Pearl Jam 20 makes VH1 Behind the Music episodes seem impartial. There’s no negativity in this world. No musical missteps. Eddie Vedder is never an asshole. Issues ranging from Roskilde to the band’s cavalcade of drummers are strangely glossed over and given little screen time. Even in situations where there is clearly no blame to be placed on the band members — like with Roskilde — Crowe seems desperate to avoid any bad vibes.
I was expecting more, particularly because I read a couple months ago that some of the band bristled when they first viewed the film, upset that some of their internal dirty laundry made it to air. Either that was a make-believe story designed to build hype, or these are the most sensitive people on the planet — because there was nothing remotely upsetting to be found.
Even more frustratingly, Crowe’s eagerness to pay due respect to Pearl Jam led to a poorly constructed film. The narrative is disjointed. We make strange, unexplained leaps through time. Important issues are raised and dropped. In their place, we get footage of Jeff Ament skateboarding or some such shit.
David Simon Cowell: My reaction to the film was similar. As much as I like Pearl Jam, it’s been a while since I’ve listened to them to any great extent, and it was good to be immersed in their music again. There was great live footage, and great clips of the band on the road, when they were young, etc.
But, even as I was watching it, it seemed like a bit of a mess. For me, it was great… I’ve lived through their entire career, and followed it extremely closely during their heyday (I vividly remember when they were the sellouts who weren’t “Seattle” enough compared to Nirvana, which is one of the hilariously ridiculous things you worry about when you grow up in the Chicago suburbs, I guess). But if I was being introduced to them for the first time? I’d have no fucking idea what was going on. Two examples: 1.) I kept wondering how the hell a surfer in San Diego got a tape from guys he’d never met. When they blew through the drummers, they said Jack Irons got it to him. So, how did Vedder know the ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer? 2.) McCready talked about how they were about to break up (I think it was around Yield, but it wasn’t clear), and they needed to have a discussion to clear the air. Did they ever have a confrontation? I still have no idea.
It’s fucking hilarious if any member of Pearl Jam was upset for even a millisecond about Crowe’s blow job. However, there’s no fascist like a liberal, and Eddie Vedder has certainly always seemed like that type.
Which is probably why Crowe didn’t have the balls to ask what to me has always been the number one question I’d want to ask Vedder: How do you feel about the fact that your deserved, but unbelievably fluky, path to success came because of someone else’s death? While the film definitely tried to give Andrew Wood his due, it could have gone much deeper. How did his family take Pearl Jam’s success? How did Stone and Jeff go so quickly from glam rock to flannel grunge?
The biggest indicator of the fascist/blow job aspect of the film was the lack of outside opinions. The only non-current PJ or Crowe voice that was heard was friend Chris Cornell. How about the other two MLB members who didn’t make it to Pearl Jam? How about the Mudhoney guys who were in Green River with Jeff and Stone (how about mentioning Green River at all)? How about asking Mookie Blaylock whether he regretted making them change their name?
But, the most egregious was the lack of the drummers. Dave Krusen was there at the beginning… he’d probably have some remembrances of the band’s beginnings. Dave Abbruzzese was there for their prime, Vs. and Vitalogy. Eddie Vedder once said Jack Irons was the reason the band didn’t break up… he probably has some insight to how they resolved their problems. If “the drummer is the heart of the band”, why not talk to the hearts of the band when PJ mattered as more than a live force? I’m guessing it’s because they had some stories they (i.e. Vedder) didn’t want to hear.
The Dilemma: There is no narrative throughline to this film. It feels oddly disjointed, especially considering that Crowe doesn’t display much ambition. He just wants to tell the story of a band and show some cool concert footage. He accomplishes the latter but not the former, because of all the unanswered questions you mentioned. I don’t know if the film was destroyed in the editing process or if this is what Crowe had in mind while it was filming, but I don’t have a better understanding of Pearl Jam now than I did before I watched it.
There seems to be tension beneath the surface between band members, but it goes unaddressed. It’s hinted at but never openly discussed. I was also bothered by the way Crowe attempted to put a tidy bow on Vedder and Kurt Cobain’s relationship. We were told that Cobain hated Pearl Jam, and that it bothered Vedder. But wait! Everything’s OK! Cobain came around! This was “proven” by footage of a clearly drunk Cobain saying something like, “I don’t hate Pearl Jam anymore. I realized that a lot of people who like our music also like their music, so they must be OK.”
Uh…sure. What Kurt leaves out (and the film leaves out) is that he also hated most of the people who listened to Nirvana. And if there were a Venn Diagram of Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans, the overlapping section could also be labeled “people Kurt Cobain hates.”
In addition to the drummers and the unresolved issues between the band members, the film also stubbornly refused to answer the question about Pearl Jam’s career that matters most to me, and that goes the farthest in shaping their legacy: how much of the band’s post-Vitalogy output was intentionally shitty, if any?
There’s no doubt that Eddie Vedder (and maybe others too, but definitely Vedder) wanted to run away from the mainstream at full speed. He was overwhelmed by the fame, the pressure, etc. and wanted to go back to a certain degree of privacy and normalcy. So the band stopped making videos and they released songs like “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me.” But was their decline after Vitalogy (or after Yield, depending on what you think of that album) part of their natural lifecycle, or did Vedder simply refuse to write or record the best possible material? Stone Gossard has been quoted as saying that Vedder would refuse to write lyrics for what the band considered its best, catchiest songs. Is that true? How long did it continue? At what point did Pearl Jam become incapable of creating a great album as opposed to intentionally turning away from doing so?
Crowe ignored the issue, which not only hampers the film but damages my opinion of the band’s career by leaving unexplained what could easily have been explained.
David Simon Cowell: While I certainly think that Vedder’s increasing control over the band probably didn’t help in the long run, not sure that I buy the urban myth that there was all this great material that wasn’t used. Gossard seems like as much of a douche, so I’m guessing anything he wrote that wasn’t used was wasted gold in his mind.
Plus, it doesn’t seem like Pearl Jam has gone off in some radical new direction. In all honesty, I’m not all that well-versed with their second ten years, but that’s mostly because when I’ve given stuff a chance, it’s sounded pretty bland. It’s not like they were making Metal Machine Music or Re-Ac-Tor.
What seems to be the most interesting about PJ’s second ten, and what the doc touched on a bit, is that they jumped all over the hole left by Phish’s hiatus/breakup, to become the premiere “following” live band, with all their concerts released on CD, etc. Given that I’ve seen both bands (and the Grateful Dead) live, that always seemed odd to me. Whatever you think of the Dead or Phish, their live performances were greatly varied, and different from the recorded versions. I’ve seen PJ several times (although not in a while), and I never got that impression. They kick ass live, but except for the set-list, the music doesn’t seem to change all that much.
Obviously, though, live shows have been their biggest contribution of the past 10 years, and is where their future legacy lays. When one thinks of rock bands of our generation (let’s say ’80 to ’00) who will still draw a crowd when our kids are in high school, they have to be near the top of the list. I have that bet with Kappes that they’ll play a Super Bowl halftime show (a no-brainer, btw), because once the Baby Boomer bands die off, someone will take their place. Obviously, U2 is at the top of that list. Red Hot Chili Peppers would probably be next. PJ hasn’t had a U.S. platinum album since Yield in ’98, and not a multi-platinum since Vitalogy in ’94. Every RHCP since Blood Sugar Sex Magik in ’91 has been multi-platinum. Metallica are a bigger band in any conceivable way. Depeche Mode will always draw if they want to. Guessing Green Day will also hold up better crowd-wise… as annoying as the Broadway musical thing is, at least they’ve tried something recently that’s paid off both commercially and artistically (the American Idiot album).
I guess, looking at their career, I don’t understand why Pearl Jam isn’t objectively bigger than they are. The thesis of Crowe’s film, and the band themselves, is that it was because of the unorthodox moves they made. Obviously, the Ticketmaster thing set them back (and screwed them… when the then-biggest band in the world can’t tour without Ticketmaster, that’s a fucking monopoly). And they refused to make videos for a while (although that was during the years they were the biggest). But, I think the biggest reason for their decline is that they never took risks with their music, i.e. U2 with Achtung Baby, or Metallica with Lou Reed, or Green Day with American Idiot, or RHCP with Dave Navarro. Not all of these worked, but at least they were evidence of a band trying to evolve. All PJ did was exile drummers and keep making similar sounding arena rock. It seems like the mix of personalities in the band didn’t allow for a whole lot of give and take, which probably means their staying together wasn’t doing anybody favors artistically.
I mean, looking at their discography is a real eye opener. The thing that Pearl Jam always offered was respectable accessibility. Whereas Nirvana was a punk band that somehow broke, and probably would have only been as big as they were in that particular time frame, Pearl Jam’s music was timeless arena rock, albeit with a grunge-era political sensibility. I would argue strongly that Nirvana was a better band, but in normal times, they would have been a Clash-level commercial success at best. Pearl Jam were believable as the new Who or whoever in any era. That they haven’t had a relevant album or single in 17 years, that they basically stopped adding significantly to their oeuvre at the same time as Nirvana, whose lead singer shot himself in the head, is a sign that something went very wrong.
The Dilemma: I don’t think the issue is that Pearl Jam stopped taking risks, though they certainly did stop. They are (or were) the kind of band that could have found creative and commercial success without trying to reinvent the formula a la Radiohead or Wilco. Vs. is handily their best album, and there’s very little about it that could be considered musically risky. Even Vitalogy — which is weighed down by “experiments” like “Bugs” and “Foxymophandlemama” — is strongest when it plays it straight with drum-crashing arena rockers like “Corduroy” and “Last Exit.” Pearl Jam could have churned out a few more albums on the level of Vitalogy or Ten without taking risks. We wouldn’t be lauding them as one of the greatest bands of all time, but we’d be forced to reckon with their place in the pantheon much more than we are today.
At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, Pearl Jam simply stopped writing good songs. Again, I truly don’t know if they just ran out of gas or if Vedder went a little crazy/messianic and withheld good material. I could buy either explanation. The end result is the same: a band with more bad albums than good, which weighs against their deserved reputation as a great live band and owners of one of the best 12-song best-of playlists out there.
Meanwhile, where does this leave Cameron Crowe’s future as a filmmaker? To me, this documentary was his great hope for the year. God knows We Bought A Zoo is going to do nothing to repair his Elizabethtown-damaged reputation.
David Simon Cowell: Cameron Crowe might be the perfect person to do the PJ documentary, if only because his career is so similar. His entire reputation/love from fanboys like us rests on three movies: Say Anything (’89), Jerry Maguire (’96) and Almost Famous (’00). He also has Singles and Vanilla Sky, which were certainly watchable, but significantly flawed. And, in the past ten years, he’s essentially disappeared.
To me, his problem is similar to Aaron Sorkin’s (which he’s only been able to overcome by sticking to non-fiction adaptations). They are both writers who have been defined by their audacious egotism, who truly believe that their worldview and sensibilities need to be heard and heeded. And, for a long time, their talent and good ear were able to propel them into creating really compelling works of art. But, eventually, their psychotic self-belief sent them careening into the wall. Worst of all, the cracks really started to show, and the shrillness retroactively affected their previous work. To me, the train wreck of Studio 60 affects the way I view The West Wing, because Sorkin’s tricks, habits and flaws became so apparent to me. Similarly, Elizabethtown (and I’m guessing I Bought A Zoo) did the same for Crowe.
Basically, I feel the same way about Crowe as I do about PJ. There are things he created that were, and are, extremely important to me. But, the overall arc of his career has been disappointing.