The Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam hit the scene just before I started getting into music in my adolescent years. Just as they were one of the first bands to ensnare me with their sound, Cameron Crowe was one of the first filmmakers whose work I fell in love with. As my taste for film developed, Crowe was one of the first directors whose work I found I absolutely adored. Our minds function on the same wavelength - only I'm not creative in the least. His films and writing speak to me. He puts into words and moving pictures exactly what I feel. Although I personally discovered both Crowe and Pearl Jam after their initial rises to popularity, their importance and influence in my life are just as strong as they were for those who have been fans from the beginning. While critics claim that both have stumbled along the way in their careers, I personally don't see it. What some claim to be their failures, I see as still being of better quality than most of their peers and competitors. To this day, I'm still an unwavering fan of both Pearl Jam and Cameron Crowe, so to have a documentary about Pearl Jam's 20-year run directed by Cameron Crowe is a dream come true.
Pearl Jam came about in a unique time. Not only were the late '80s and early '90s in Seattle the perfect time for them to rise, but technology was becoming more accessible. These factors were not only necessary for Pearl Jam to come about, but also for this documentary to be made, because camcorders were making their way into more homes across America, people were recording a lot more footage than prior to this time. It's insane to see how much footage there is from the early days of the band. 'Pearl Jam Twenty' isn't simply chock full of current interview footage, but full of the actual historic, even date-stamped recordings. When interviewees talk about a certain specific event, footage plays over their interview audio showing exactly what is being discussed.
'Pearl Jam Twenty' intimately takes you through the events that lead up to the band's formation, through their rise to fame, across the globe on international tours, onstage for performances in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, and through the hard times, the dark times, and yes, the happy times. It's like a perfectly polished extended episode of 'Behind the Music,' one that is one hundred percent factual, completely intimate and honest, and never dodging the difficult topics. There isn't a single interview with a label rep, a magazine writer, or an outside source. What you see and hear comes from the mouths of people who lived and went through it, not only each of the band members themselves, but their peers and colleagues who played a major part in their story - like Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.
Despite being compiled from thousands of hours of footage recorded from several dozen people over the last 20 years, 'Pearl Jam Twenty' is a well-made, perfectly flowing documentary. Crowe's fluid storytelling is filled with the expected Crowe-isms: it's full of appropriate and fitting pop culture, it pushes itself to strive for genuine moments of honest emotion and it swells from a perfect combination of music and picture. Crowe even inserts into the credits a scrolling background that resembles a scrapbook page full of memorabilia (much like the road trip guide that Claire makes for Drew in Crowe's film 'Elizabethtown').
Pearl Jam's frontman Eddie Vedder is one of the prominent '90s singer/songwriters who never feared saying what was on his mind. He hated being deemed "mainstream" and despised their record label for trying to turn them into a commercial band. He boycotted the largest ticketing chain for overpricing tickets, making it harder for fans to get into their shows. His goal has always been to make music for his fans - and it still is today. Footage from a 2010 concert shows Vedder playing "Better Man" on stage. Just when the first verse should kick in, the crowd begins singing loudly. The look on Vedder's face is one of gratitude and appreciation, completely fulfilled by writing something that moves thousands of people at once. While the crowd sings, Vedder simply plays the tune with a satisfied look on his face. He never approaches the mic. At that moment, he is not the frontman. His audience is the voice and he is simply the man playing guitar. On this night, he is literally playing for them. And that's the way Pearl Jam is and has always been - a fan's band.
Fans of Pearl Jam are going to love this in-depth documentary about the band that I deem my generation's The Who. Had the stories not been told from the mouths of the guys who lived it, it wouldn't be as impressive. For that reason, you need not be a Pearl Jam to enjoy 'Twenty.' It demonstrates fine filmmaking and provides a great look at what it's like to be an American rock band. And the music's great.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
After Pearl Jam's very first album, 'Ten,' they never released another disc in a standard plastic jewel case. Their albums have since been house in atypical unique cardboard cases, and the same goes for the 'Pearl Jam Twenty' Blu-ray. This region-free BD-50 is secured in a standard clear plastic backing in a tri-fold cardboard case that's the same size as any other blue keepcases. Running 119 minutes, the 'Pearl Jam Twenty' Blu-ray is a Best Buy exclusive until late December. The only other way to get your hands on the Blu-ray until then is via the band's fan club (The Ten Club), which offers an exclusive and gorgeous Blu-ray package that is not and will not be available in stores.
Due to 'Pearl Jam Twenty' being mostly comprised of raw home videos and live concert footage, it arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080i/AVC-MPEG-4 transfer with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
Inside the Blu-ray's cover, it reads, "Elements of 'Pearl Jam Twenty' and related bonus content are taken from archival audio and video, and as such, they vary in consistency and quality." Aside from digitally recorded video footage from the 2000s and forward, the majority of what you see in the film comes from old VHS tapes and Hi-8 videos. As you would expect, the video quality is mostly very low. Crowe's interview footage and the more recent live recordings are sharp and glorious. Archival footage is clearly a product of its time. The intimacy of the film stems from the footage you see - from Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard's personal videos from 1989, from Eddie Vedder's pre-show reels and from the band's archival footage.
The old footage is problematic in nearly every way, but the new footage is the opposite. Going from poor quality footage of the young band members to the new high-def interviews of the now aged members emphasizes the length of their 20-year career. The sharp detail of the new interview footage shows their weathered and aged faces unlike before. The gray whiskers in Jeff Ament's goatee are defined an individually visible. Concert footage (especially from their 2010 tour) is vibrant, full of colors, astonishing blacks and great detail.
The only flaws in the high-def video are from slight aliasing seen in the texture of clothes, little bit of random noise and one quick flash of banding as the film fades out and the credits begin.
The transfer for 'Pearl Jam Twenty' is just about as strong as it could possibly be, unfortunately, at times this emphasizes the lower quality of the source material. Had this old footage not been used, 'Pearl Jam Twenty' would not be the fantastic film it is, and since this is the best that footage could likely be presented, we can't let it's archival nature reflect negatively on the video rating. In this case, I'll keep the VHS footage and the tone of the film over the alternative. It suits this production, and it's fitting.
Three listening options are available: PCM (Uncompressed) Stereo (48KHZ/24 BIT), PCM (Uncompressed) 5.1 Surround (48KHZ/24 BIT) and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640 KBPS). After flipping around between the three, I found the uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround to be the most hearty.
Just as with the video quality, 'Pearl Jam Twenty' features plenty of old mono audio - but again, it comes from the source material, so it's completely acceptable. Members of Pearl Jam and Crowe himself would agree that there's nothing wrong with a bootleg audio from time to time, so the old mono audio adds to the experience of journeying with the band from their humble mono beginnings to the present.
During the stylized informative segments of the film, the audio playfully bounces around from channel to channel. Live music - both old and new recordings - fills your theater with clear full sound and rich, deep bass tones. Pearl Jam has never sounded so good at home as it does throughout 'Twenty.' Solos from guitarist Mike McCready sound so clean and pure that it wouldn't sound any better if McCready was actually jamming in your home theater. Never sounding mixed, altered, nor held back, drummer Matt Cameron's thumping bass sounds like it's being played right in front of you.
Each of the following features feels like a segment of the film removed or trimmed for editing purposes. While none of them feature completely finished audio and video (all are full of terrible aliasing and rough audio), they're worth checking out.
Few filmmakers have produced band-centric documentaries as powerful as what Cameron Crowe pulls off here - and fewer bands have been as deserving of such a documentary as is Pearl Jam. Being a friend and fan of the band, Crowe gets each band member to open up and share intimate memories of the good times as well as the bad. Comprised of low- or no-def VHS video footage, the video quality isn't always the greatest, but the transfer presents every quirky frame perfectly - the raw nature of these home videos give the film a genuine tone. The audio quality is better, but also lacking due to the nature of old home-made recordings. If all you know of Pearl Jam are the radio hits, you'll still find 'Pearl Jam Twenty' an interesting documentary about one of the most influential bands of the last 20 years. For fans of the band, this is a must-own Blu-ray that has to be seen sooner than later.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.