Toward the end of Pearl Jam‘s 20th-birthday bash on September 4th, Eddie Vedder returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and played a ballad he’d written just hours before. “Never thought we would, never thought we could,” he sang, his voice full of gratitude. “I’m so glad we made it to when it all got good.”
Hard-won happiness was the defining mood of the two-day festival, which brought more than 54,000 fans from around the world to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. After openers including the Strokes, Queens of the Stone Age and Mudhoney primed the crowds, Pearl Jam closed out each night with a killer performance – digging into their catalog with deep cuts like 1998’s “Push Me, Pull Me” and 2000’s “In the Moonlight” on Saturday, then tearing through supercharged versions of hits like “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” “Black” and “Alive” on Sunday.
Soundgarden‘s Chris Cornell got some of the loudest cheers of the weekend, when he swaggered onstage both nights to wail Temple of the Dog classics like “Reach Down” and “Hunger Strike,” his smash duet with Vedder. “Every time ‘Hunger Strike’ happens, it’s an immediate time machine,” Cornell says, “like it’s 1992 and we’re at Lollapalooza.”
Pearl Jam are celebrating their 20th anniversary all month long – with a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary arriving in theaters September 20th (it airs on PBS October 21st, with a DVD out four days later); a two-CD Crowe-compiled soundtrack album, featuring choice live cuts and rarities, due September 20th; and a coffee-table history of the band hitting shelves September 13th.
Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis and the band started sketching out the plan over a boozy Las Vegas evening in 2001. “I was like, ‘We’re still going to be a band in 10 years? Whatever,'” says bassist Jeff Ament. “Then, two years ago, [Curtis] started talking about it for real. We were like, ‘Damn, did we all agree to that thing?'”
Crowe’s film, Pearl Jam Twenty, began as a live anthology modeled after the 1979 Who documentary The Kids Are Alright. “It was going to be the best of the stuff in the vaults, an hour and a half, boom,” says Crowe, who’s been tight with the band since he cast Vedder, Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard in 1992’s Singles. The filmmaker combed through 12,000 hours of footage – discovering never-before-seen performances, including a raw “Alive” from the band’s second-ever gig in 1990 and a furious “Not for You” in Manila from 1995.
Last year, realizing he wanted to go deeper, Crowe asked the members of Pearl Jam to invite him into their homes for a series of unflinching interviews. It wasn’t an easy sell. “It may not appear that way, but they’re shy by nature,” says Curtis. “But I pushed really hard, and they trusted Cameron. He’s probably the only guy that could have pulled this off.”
Crowe encouraged them to open up about their most painful memories – from the fatal heroin overdose of Andrew Wood, singer of Gossard and Ament’s pre-PJ band Mother Love Bone, to Pearl Jam’s explosive rise to fame and the internal turmoil that followed, to their public battles with Ticketmaster and the trampling deaths of nine fans during their set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000. “We went about as personal as we could get,” says Crowe. “To their credit, not one of them dodged one question.”
Last October, the director screened a rough cut for the band. “I was physically ill after I saw it,” says Ament. “It’s just hard to watch train wreck after train wreck, going, ‘God, why didn’t we handle that better?'”
The movie, of course, has a happy ending: Pearl Jam remain one of rock’s biggest live acts, with a fiercely loyal fan base. “It’s become somewhat cultish, the love out there,” says Curtis. “You see it all over the world – you’re in freaking Brazil, and they know all the words to every song.”
Now Pearl Jam can’t wait to get back to the future. “This doesn’t make us feel older,” Vedder said at Alpine Valley. “It feels like a new beginning.” This spring, they cut a batch of new tunes with producer Brendan O’Brien in L.A., and they hope to finish recording their 10th LP early next year. “We’re at least at the halfway point,” says Ament. Adds Curtis, “It’s hard for them to sit on that shit. They’re raring to go forward.”
This story is from the September 29th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.