If a band’s story lied only within their songs – their music and lyrics – there would be little need for the job of a music journalist to flesh out the parts that would, in most cases, be left uncovered. Those bits and pieces that together make up the sum of a band’s whole. There would be little need for the likes of Charlie Cross, Lester Bangs, or his prodigy Cameron Crowe. And bands like Pearl Jam would be all the less for it.
It is thanks, in part, to Crowe that the anniversary of Pearl Jam’s twentieth year of making music won’t be overlooked. Together with a retrospective album release – curated by Crowe himself – and a book of photos and stories, Crowe’s film Twenty will make sure that the history of one of alternative music’s most enduring – somewhat endearing – bands is not forgotten.
Twenty, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, looks at the backstory of Pearl Jam, giving it the Crowe treatment. The director, who notched up an Oscar win for his Almost Famous screenplay, and gave us the “Show me the money” classic Jerry Maguire, is no stranger to the genre of music journalism, having been at it since he was a young teen, chasing bands on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine while the rest of his peers were out chasing girls.
Pics: Danny Clinch
Having created films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vanilla Sky, and ElizabethTown means Crowe is no stranger to memorable characters. In Twenty, Crowe tries to show us the men, the characters, behind the music. We get to know more about Pearl Jam – and not just Eddie Vedder. Indeed, a full ten minutes passes before we first see any sign of the ukelele-proficient frontman in the film. Viewers also come to know bass guitarist Jeff Ament, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, lead guitarist Mike McCready and current drummer Matt Cameron a little better. But what you get is hardly a typical Behind the Music kind of story. This is the band in personal territory – under Crowe’s eye.
And if you’re a fan you will appreciate the effort he has gone to, to make this a living, breathing souvenir. Especially if you’re a South African fan – one who grew up with the music, and the memories created by that music, but never had the opportunity to hear and see the band play live. Consider Twenty then, to be largely the ultimate concert – made up of some of the best moments in the band’s career, right for your enjoyment.
But there are also moments that were reportedly difficult for the band to watch. Crowe showed them the movie in October last year. “And you could more than hear a pin drop.” he said. “It was like the oxygen disappeared from the room.” He and the band members talked about the movie afterwards, and according to him, it was a bit of group therapy for everyone. The Crowe we’ve come to know wouldn’t have had it any other way. “They chafed at stuff a little bit along the way,” he told journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour. It’s his typical approach. “I want to ask the stuff that a fan given a front row seat would ask, but be tough when I need to be tough.”
“The film get’s under their skin a little bit. But if everything was perfect it would be like an EPK (electronic press kit). If you rip the scab off a little bit and make people a little uncomfortable, you’re going to get something unique,” he said.
Old wounds of the past are certainly opened up – going back to a disastrous industry gig that the band played for the movie Singles, to their relationship with Ticketmaster, and the Roskilde festival in 2000 where 9 people died during their set. Crowe goes into it all. Peeling back the surface is a hallmark of the man who showed us the internal going-ons of a band, albeit fictional, in Almost Famous.
Part of this insider feel comes from the director being given more than a thousand hours of performance footage –plus 18 to 20 hours of home and personal footage – to work with. He also added new material that he shot over the last year and a half. “We put so much into the film – moments, pieces of footage shot by band members, audio snippets, visual bursts, new and old interviews – many different formats, all meant to present an emotional scrapbook of what it felt like to be a member of the band on this twenty-year journey,” said Crowe.
How does one begin finding a story in the hours and hours of footage – rehearsals, concerts, behind the scenes visuals that die-hard fans dream of seeing? If you’re Crowe you look for it piece by piece, song by song. You rely on your ability to pick up the story as it relates to the rest of what’s happening in the music world – in this case the rise of grunge and Seattle’s vibrant music scene in the 90‘s, which naturally includes the impact of Nirvana, together with the band’s political and social stances. “The richness of the footage made our path very clear – just tell the story of the band and let the music guide us. It was a joy to make this film, and we’re thrilled share it with the fans,” he said.
Of course it helps to have a bond with the band that comes from being there at the very beginning. Crowe, who moved from San Diego to Seattle in the 80s, followed Pearl Jam’s rise as a band over the years. He uses this to focus the story – how the spirit of Andy Wood and the band Money Love Bones gave birth to Pearl Jam; how Gossard and Ament invited Vedder to audition for their burgeoning grunge rock band; how they went on to sell over 30 million records in the U.S. and an estimated 60 million worldwide.
For this is the story of Pearl Jam – as the Crowe flies.
Originally published in GQ Magazine, October 2011.