Cameron Crowe’s Twenty is a living scrapbook dedicated to America’s most…. something… rock band. I don’t know exactly what that adjective is, but Pearl Jam is definitely worthy of a superlative. And despite his gushing affection for the band, Crowe doesn’t make any statements in regard to Pearl Jam’s ultimate pedestal. He simply shows us the band’s history and humanity.
It’s easy to forget exactly how stupid these guys looked back in 1990 (and I mean that in the most loving way possible). Vedder was 100% genuine when he screamed “Delight, delight in our youth!” I wonder if today we aren’t too cynical to boost a band like this up to superstardom. I suspect not, when I hear how un-self-aware the music is that mainstream rock kids are still listening to these days. The fact that Pearl Jam matured with their fans definitely did wonders for their longevity, but it was a tad awkward watching the footage of Eddie climbing up on the rafters during the solos with little regard for gravity—or being difficult during interviews and award shows with that dialed-up intense glare.
It’s about as awkward as watching a video of yourself being creative when you were a kid.
Twenty is a suitable history lesson giving us, among other things, a significant look at a talent named Andrew Wood. Wood was a Seattle rock micro-star whose death can really make grunge-loving philosophy students uncomfortable with the phrase, “The ends justifies the means.” Wood was a glammy byproduct of ’80s hair metal whose defeat at the hands of heroin may well have been a mythical sacrifice on high to the gods of rock. When this beloved member of the Seattle musical community met his tragic end, it sent a shock-wave across the West Coast, shaking seeds loose, cross-pollinating cassette tapes and fertilizing relationships. Important relationships.
How important? “Alive” is the only Top 40 hit that the radio was never able to kill. It’s beloved by fans, punks, hipsters, hippies, red-necks, goths, frat boys, and people who generally can’t tolerate Pearl Jam. Today, it’s classic rock that will never be cheesy, and it will sit with “Free Bird,” “Hotel California” and “All Along The Watchtower” as one of America’s greatest rock anthems. Pearl Jam managed to achieve mass appeal without ever soliciting the lowest common denominator. Rather, they offered the highest common factor, and that’s why arenas full of people around the world will instinctively unite to thrust their fists in the air with a rhythmic “YEAH!” during the solo (which was never part of the recording).
Twenty could have been twenty hours longer, and I suspect it was at some point. Crowe efficiently utilizes a treasure trove of footage. Other than emotionally gripping moments, we rarely see anyone’s face while they’re talking. Instead, we feast on hours of early ’90s Seattle b-roll, a moving museum captured by one of America’s great artistic communities. We get the emotions and the facts, focusing mainly on those early years as well as some of the most historically important moments in latter-day PJ history (i.e. the battle against Ticketmaster and the nine deaths at Roskilde). The touring Pearl Jam fan may take exception to the relative lack of coverage on the albums themselves, as Crowe opts for a more personal look at the personnel. But this ain’t behind the music; it’s a glimpse at the origins and survival of a one of the more important relationships in rock.
Twenty never reveals Crowe’s true bias for the band. (The scene in Almost Famous when Stillwater pulls the young journalist into the pre-show huddle is based on a Lollapalooza Pearl Jam show at which PJ embraced the Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe before the set.) But neither is Crowe afraid to let them look like idiots—the way your brother would be thrilled to display footage of your high-school talent show. Pearl Jam and Twenty aren’t about looking cool; they’re about being true to a moment, of taking “delight in our youth.”