Friday, October 28, 2011

Rawk-U-Meant-Awry Review: PJ20



WARNING: I am a long-time fan of Pearl Jam (PJ) up through Yield. After that record, they lost me.

I just watched the Pearl Jam Twenty (PJ20) documentary produced by Cameron Crowe, a long time friend of the band (as well as the only director to capture the golden age of Seattle's music scene in his well-crafted romantic comedy Singles by featuring members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam as Matt Dillon's band Citizen Dick) and accomplished film director.  Through a ton of archival footage and some interview montages we get to see where the band started up through today.

The Good
The movie starts with delving into the story of Mother Love Bone (MLB) - PJ guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament's most successful band at the time that was about to break out of Seattle until their untimely heroin overdoes of their singer Andrew Wood.  From the ashes of this band rose the phoenix that would be Pearl Jam.  This to me was really interesting to watch.  I've read countless articles regarding the origin of PJ but the footage they used really drove home that the seeds of something powerful to come were present in MLB.  

A new depth of understanding of the Seattle scene was demonstrated by highlighting the intermingling and support shown between some of the biggest bands of the 90's; Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell - without even really knowing anything about Andy - allowing him to stay with him after a stint in rehab; Chris, Jeff, Stone, PJ lead guitarist Mike McCready, and Soundgarden & PJ drummer Matt Cameron forming Temple of the Dog to pay tribute to Andy and featuring Eddie Vedder on vocals to effectively legitimize PJ to the rest of the world is incredible to say the least; Eddie and Kurt Cobain showing mutual admiration for each other even though they were portrayed as rivals by the media;  acts in Chicago and many other parts of the US are not nearly as supportive of each other like these bands were; the level of regard they all continue to speak with about each other permeates every frame they're interviewed in.  All of these points materialize what I've read from the media for so many years - if you were a part of Seattle's music scene at the time, there was something special there both for the bands but also for the fans.  Maybe that's how Beatles fans from Liverpool felt about the band before they left for London?

Much of the documentary centers around Eddie's rise to a leadership position within the band. Apparently Ed was a shy, lone wolf of surfer with a talented voice in the beginning of the band. That attribute in my opinion really helped the band be truthful and sincere both musically and lyrically. Stone and Jeff had initially set out to make a band of their own, but over time it became more of a democracy with Eddie taking the reigns and being the band's spokesman.  Whether it was for pro-choice advocacy, leading the fight up against Ticketmaster's monopoly, or going after war-hungry government administrations, Eddie seemed to be leading the charge with his bandmates closely behind him.  We get to see how much more comfortable Eddie has become with his position today.

There was a good deal of the documentary dedicated to the point in the band where they realized that they were the masters of their own destiny.  It took them touring with Neil young to see that they did not have to succumb to the pressures put on them by outside forces like the label, media, or even the fans.  One of the reasons they're still around is because they empowered themselves to take charge of their lives as much as possible.  This realization was well explained in the movie.

The Bad
My biggest gripe regarding the documentary has to deal with one of the most Spinal Tap-ish issues in the band - how come the band has had so many drummers?  They briefly touch on the subject in the movie but go into no real depth.  There has been a semi-documented acrimonious split around the release of their third album Vitalogy when drummer Dave Abruzzese, who toured extensively for Ten; played and toured behind Vs.; and played on Vitalogy, got dismissed.  Why wasn't that spoken on?  The attitude seemed to be, "Ah, well, it just didn't work out with drummer X, Y, or Z...so, that is".   Behind every great band is a great drummer and I feel that they did a disservice to the fans and their drummers of past by glossing over the subject.  Even the Foo Fighter's Back and Forth documentary went into some real depth with their drummer issues made understanding the present state of the band  much sweeter.

As a producer, more focus could have been placed on the making of many of these records.  They speak about the first one in depth; the second one is looked into some; the third one they touch; they don't even really mention the names of any other records after that.  If they do mention something about a later record, it's literally in passing in order to talk about something else.  For example, Mike McCready previously has been in the public eye regarding his drug abuse.  His use deeply affected the band both personally and musically.  I would loved to have known more about how the records made while he was on or off drugs proceeded, what mindsets were the bandmembers in, and how all of that tied them together.  PJ's sixth record Binaural was mentioned as a "dark" record because of the drug use but that's all we're given.

I did like how they tried to segment the history between the first ten years (no pun intended) and the second.  However, they focused too much on the first ten. Does 119 minutes running time capture the intricacies of the band?  No but I also recognize they can't make a 4 day long movie either to catch ever nuance I'm looking for.  They just needed to add probably another 60 minutes to satisfy me :)

Verdict
I feel this movie deserves a 3 out of 5 stars rating.   It's got a ton of great footage but it by far is not comprehensive.  I'll admit that maybe a lot of the information I'm looking for can be found elsewhere in books, magazines, or the internet, but this documentary by name implies that it's all-encompassing.  Perhaps in another 10 years they will be able to include additional footage I'm looking for. LONG LIVE PJ30!

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