Oct 192011
Authors: Neal Justin McClatchy-Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — We interrupt your regular night of PBS programming to bring you rock ‘n’ roll.

Long-haired, messy, blaring, angry rock that would make Big Bird’s feathers turn red. “Pearl Jam Twenty” documents how the Seattle band became an early architect of grunge — and nearly collapsed under the weight of what they had built.

Director Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous”) spent three years culling through more than 3,000 hours of footage, going back to Mother Love Bone, a precursor to Pearl Jam, with lead singer Andrew Wood, who died of a drug overdose just when the group was gaining traction.

When Mother Love Bone survivors Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament put together a new band, they enlisted a San Diego surfer named Eddie Vedder as lead singer, and one of the highlights of “PJ20” is a contemporary shot of him holding the cassette audition tape he’d submitted.

Other compelling footage: the band on the bus practicing a song called “Brother” (later renamed “Daughter”); the group doing an impromptu acoustic show in Zurich that led to a breakthrough appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged,” and Vedder dedicating an in-concert performance of “Alive” to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on the night of his suicide — mere weeks after the famous Seattle frontmen had met.

But as much as Crowe celebrates the music, he also shows the perils of sudden success.

In particular, we watch Vedder go from a goofball sporting a bra and a blacked-out tooth for an interview to a young man struggling with stardom. During a concert in the Netherlands in front of 60,000 fans, Vedder took his acrobatic act to an another level, climbing the rafters, swinging from light to light and then taking a stage dive that would give Evel Knievel pause. It comes across as less of an exuberant stunt and more of a cry for help.

Then there’s the band’s infamous performance at a party celebrating the premiere of Crowe’s 1992 movie, “Singles.” Vedder is clearly drunk, disorderly — and a disaster.

The director wishes he would have filmed the Pearl Jam members watching “PJ20,” which he screened for them in October 2010.

“You could more than hear a pin drop,” Crowe recalled. “You could feel in the room this kind of ‘Whoa. This is group therapy going on here.’ When it was over, there was a silence. Then one of the band wives said, ‘It’s (expletive) great. I wouldn’t touch a thing.’ And everyone kind of breathed again.’”

Crowe said the fact that the documentary was being produced under PBS’ “American Masters” banner helped.

“This is a place where people relax a little bit and really tell you what they’re thinking and what the creative process was like,” said Crowe, referring to the series that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The members of Pearl Jam “chafed at stuff along the way. We argued for things that we felt needed to be in there, and Eddie and the guys moved with us to tell the story the way we did.”

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