Cameron Crowe makes big, emotionally generous, open hearted movies. These are the qualities that endured him to a generation of film fans and are of course the very qualities that landed him in Director Jail for the past half decade.
No matter I have faith in Cameron Crowe, indeed I have the kind of wide eyed faith in Cameron Crowe that Cameron Crowe characters have in things. Almost Famous remains both a pleasurable ramshackled shaggy dog comedy and one of the most honest movies ever made about the relationship we have with the art we latch onto, Vanilla Sky continues to be way ahead of its time. I highly anticipate his return to narrative filmmaking this December with We Bought A Zoo and if Pearl Jam 20 is any indication, the time away has not overly bruised Crowe. His approach to documentary work contains the same optimism and sweet nature that his narrative films do. While Pearl Jam 20 may not exactly be what anyone would call hard hitting, it’s a commissioned victory lap of a film, it is still an intimate, interesting look behind the persona of one of the biggest rock bands in the world and the environment that spawned it.
It’s an interesting film to watch for me, if only because you would be hard pressed to find a band I have less investment in than Pearl Jam. I don’t mean this as a snobbish thing. I’m not trying to claim that they’re hacks or bad musicians. It’s an almost chemical reaction for me. Their music simply fails to elicit any kind of response from me. They’re doing their thing, I’m doing mine and we seem to get along very well without one another. That said, even if 20 doesn’t exactly inspire in me a love of Pearl Jam’s music, it couldn’t help but elicit respect. There’s footage here, particularly from their early live performances that is just incredible with Vedder climbing up scaffolding at shows like a howler monkey before leaping dozens of feet into waiting crowds. Looking less like a leader of a rock band and even less like the mellow elder statesman so prevalent today than some sort of crazed messianic cult leader. All I can say is it made me fervently wish for access to a time machine so I could see one of those shows and as previously stated I don’t even like the band.
One interesting thing to note is that 20 is the first documentary about a band that grew up in the video era and if its any indication of where things are headed music documentaries are about to get a lot more interesting. While there are still plenty of talking heads, most of the story is told by the band itself in the present tense, through footage that they themselves shot over the years. There’s a staggering array of material here. One of Crowe’s strongest attributes as a filmmaker is the instinct he has towards the detritus that makes up pop culture. He tells his story with things like Operaman sketches, clips from Wheel Of Fortune and The Headbangers Ball, and even excerpts from Crowe’s own Seattle opus Singles and it’s disastrous after party where the drunken band assaults a room full of studio and music executives. It’s storytelling through collage in a way that manages to really bring the feel of the era that spawned Pearl Jam and the other Seattle bands to life.
Crowe manages to keep 20 intimate and celebratory, but with just enough insight and journalistic integrity to keep it from crossing over into fawning. At the core of the movie is Crowe’s conviction that the thing that gives Pearl Jam so much of its power is the fact that its nice to see someone lead by example for a change. It’s this insight that makes 20 the type of film that makes even a non fan want to celebrate.