Cameron Crowe had already been thinking for years about making a definitive Pearl Jam documentary when he started work on Pearl Jam Twenty around Christmas 2008. “It’s one of those things where you’re like, ‘When we do the Pearl Jam movie, we’re going to nail this sequence,’ and you just feel really good and studly,” the director tells Rolling Stone. “Then one day it becomes real, and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, there’s thousands of hours to go through.'”
Crowe – who’s been tight with Pearl Jam since casting Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard in 1992’s Singles – combed through more than 12,000 hours of archival footage for Pearl Jam Twenty. He also shot extensive new interviews with each band member. “We went about as personal as we could get,” he says. The final cut spends time on some of the most painful parts of Pearl Jam’s story, from the fatal heroin overdose of Andrew Wood, the singer in Gossard and Ament’s pre-PJ band Mother Love Bone, to Pearl Jam’s disastrous performance at the MTV-sponsored Singles release party, to the band’s public battles with Ticketmaster, to the trampling deaths of nine fans during their set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000.
Pearl Jam Twenty premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th and begins a limited theatrical run September 20th; it will also air on PBS October 21st, with a DVD out four days later. “We could keep going, frankly,” says Crowe. “I’m still seeing stuff that we could put in. We’re putting some of it into the DVD. But believe me, the thought has occurred to me: PJ21 is not such a bad title.”
What was the story you wanted to tell about this band?
I’m very partial to letting people know, as much as diehard fans know, that the group came about because of a terrible event, with the loss of Andrew Wood. You know, I loved Mother Love Bone. I was really happy to put a Mother Love Bone song in the first movie I ever directed [“Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns,” in 1989’s Say Anything…] And I’d met him and I really liked him. I’d been at one of those shows with a few people there where he treated it like it was a stadium. I just thought this guy was so packed with charisma, that like many others at the time [after his death] – nobody ever thought lightning could strike twice. I always wanted to tell the story of how Pearl Jam is the story of lightning striking twice. As well as being the flipside of the classic rock tale where great promise ends in tragedy. This is where tragedy begins great promise.
Do you remember what it was like when you first became aware of this new band emerging from the ashes?
Oh, yeah. We were making Singles up in Seattle, and I had interviewed Jeff and Stone as characters. I loved the fact that they were so different from the guys in L.A., who are like, “I’m a musician, man. I live off my girlfriend.” These were guys who were like, “We have a day job. We pull espresso. We get enough money to buy records and to play in our band at night.” I really liked that. Jeff has such a great graphic sense, so he came on as one of the art directors. And all of this coincided with the transition from Mother Love Bone to Mookie Blaylock to Pearl Jam. It was happening as we were making the movie. They would show up with tapes, and there would be new songs with this guy Eddie Vedder on it.
When Jeff or Stone would bring in those tapes with Eddie singing, did you have a sense that you were hearing something big?
No. I had the feeling that Eddie was very shy. But he loved rock and loved being a fan of rock, the way the other guys in PJ were. You knew that they fit together. A lot of times you see that in a group of guys and that even precedes the music – you just knew these guys hung well together. They were playing live days after they got together. That’s what you felt about Eddie: That he was in it for music. Plus, he loved the Who. He liked that big, emotional experience that came from being true to rock as a holy event.
Did you stay in touch with the guys as the band blew up?
I did. There were a few years where I was in less close contact with them. That was like 2002 through 2006. Then I went to see them at the Forum and really got knocked over by the fact that this group of fans that found them around the time of Ticketmaster had spawned into this whole other layer of PJ fandom. All these in-between songs that people who loved the band early and maybe took a break from them had missed were epic, and they were anthems. And the audience was right there for every one of them. That’s when I turned to [Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis] and said, “Holy crap.” They did the thing that Bono questioned early on – which is, how are you going to survive if you don’t go out there and try to own the world and make the best rock record you can, filled with singles? They actually went their own way and found their own huge audience that was more loyal than an audience would be if Pearl Jam had been out there trying to conquer it all with every song. They were more interested in a personal, authentic experience. And that was the only period I wasn’t really close with them, so it was surprising to see all that they had done.
One aspect of making this movie was sorting through all the old footage. The other side was interviewing the band. Were they eager to open up, or did you have to coax them?
That’s a good question. Originally, we were just going to do an archival study of them – a real straight KidsAreAlrightkind of account of all the stuff that was in the vaults that had never been released. We got halfway through. We actually have a version of the movie that’s like that, which will come out on the DVD, called The Kids Are 20 – it’s the movie with just performance and very little talk. But about halfway through, we were saying, “You know, it would be really great to go in there now and talk to the guys about all this stuff. But let’s talk to them in their houses, where they’re most personally comfortable, and ask them conversational questions. Let’s get them as guys on film.” So that’s what we did.
When did you decide to do those interviews?
About a year and a half ago. It just started to feel like, boy, this would be a good layer. I think Eddie was one of the first people to say, “Yep, let’s go for it.” So we did that interview in his house with his fireman’s pole that he slides down. [Laughs] They all took those interviews very seriously. They were very long. I wanted to get a feel for all the guys, not just Eddie.
You ended up talking about some pretty heavy emotional stuff, from Andy Wood’s passing to Roskilde. Was it difficult getting them to talk about those memories?
It was. It was a little uncomfortable. In Eddie’s case, I hadn’t spoken to him about the Singles party since the day it happened. Actually, I didn’t speak to him about it on the day it happened. So that was a moment that was kind of like, “Huh, you’re waiting ’til now to talk about this?” Roskilde was difficult. There was a definite shudder in the room, and then he began to talk about it. They all began to talk about all that personal stuff. To their credit, not one of them dodged one question. And when we showed it to them last October, an amazing thing happened. We went back to Kelly Curtis’s house, and there was a band conversation about everything that they had talked about. What happened in that room after they saw it was truly great. They all talked about the whole Pearl Jam experience from their singular points of view. I really felt like the movie had pressed the right buttons. These guys who usually are not in any mood to look back – they’re certainly different every night, they like to move forward – suddenly were in a very thoughtful way going over all of it. I really wish I had filmed it.
They care so much. I hope that comes across in the movie. They care so much about their fans, they care about the music. There’s not one aspect, even in the making of this movie, where any of them said, “It’s good enough. Fuck it.” Never happens. They’re always very careful about what goes out, and that it’s true and authentic to them. Even if it’s a little tough to watch, which I think Jeff has said the movie in parts is for him.
Was there anything they asked you to change after that screening?
No. If anything, there were some points where Eddie offered to illuminate things that were in there, but not as fleshed out as they became. Eddie rode back with us from the screening over to Kelly’s house. He was talking about stage diving. He said, “I look at all that footage and I just wonder, what did that guy want? What was he looking for?” And we pulled up to Kelly’s house. All the other guys were there already. We sat outside in the car. I said, “If there’s one thing that the movie still needs, it’s that feeling, and your reflection on what those times meant and how you look to yourself now.” And we went in and did one more interview, which I’m really happy about, which is one that you hear in voiceover, where he talks about how Roskilde changed them and he talks a little bit more about stage diving.
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How did you pick the live cuts and rarities on the soundtrack album?
Pearl Jam’s so generous with their bootlegs that it’s hard to pick live shows that you can’t already find or don’t know well. We just tried to augment the collection of any superfan, and then also give you a little bit of a tour if you’re a new fan, too. Some of the sound quality on the early stuff on the first disc, I think, probably tests the limits of their patience with what I wanted to use sonically. But it’s sort of a historical document thing, so it’s a different standard sometimes. I did find one more after we finished the soundtrack that I wanted to add, which was “Daughter” and “It’s OK” from Jones Beach in August of 2000. So that’s like, “Shit! That should be on there.” [Laughs]