Pearl Jam friendship informs Cameron Crowe rockumentary

Inspired by films like No Direction Home and The Kids Are Alright, director Cameron Crowe has turned a longstanding friendship with grunge icons Pearl Jam into his own rockumentary opus.
Cameron Crowe snaps a photo on the red carpet before the screening of his new documentary Pearl Jam Twenty at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Inspired by films like Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan doc No Direction Home and The Who portrait The Kids Are Alright, director Cameron Crowe has turned a longstanding friendship with grunge icons Pearl Jam into his own rockumentary opus.

"I just love the way Scorsese — as a fan and as a musicologist and as a director — chose the chunk that he chose, examined the roots and showed how the music was born. I felt so satisfied and inspired I wanted to listen to more Bob Dylan and it felt like a Bob Dylan experience," Crowe shared at a media conference in Toronto Saturday, as his film Pearl Jam Twenty made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"If we can make a movie that lets you feel the way a Pearl Jam concert or record let's you feel, then we're in good shape."

Crowe first met the band through guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament in the mid 1980s, while researching his Seattle-based film Singles and remained a companion throughout the years.

"I loved so much that Stone and Jeff were guys who had jobs and also played in bands," recalled Crowe, the former Rolling Stone writer-turned-Hollywood filmmaker.

"I met these guys and thought they were a great example of people who love music and chose to make music their purpose in life really responsibly and passionately. Loving their music came from knowing and loving them as guys first."

Over the course of the relationship he developed with the band over the years — amid the Pearl Jam concerts he attended and new albums he eagerly listened to — Crowe began imagining telling the group’s story in film. In late 2008, as talk of the band’s upcoming 20th anniversary began, this dream project turned into reality.

"What I wanted to do is use the fact that I did know them and have known them for awhile to do interviews that felt like actual conversations as opposed to interviews," Crowe said.

"I think I was able to hold a mirror up and show them how they looked to me."

Producers cast out a wide net for Pearl Jam footage and eventually collected more than 30,000 hours worth, including little or never-before seen material. From this massive trove, the band gave Crowe the freedom to create a documentary he described as "an emotional scrapbook of what it felt like to be a member of the band."

Private moments

One notable instance of the film’s intimate access is a moment Crowe calls "the holy grail." During the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder slowly danced with late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain as they stood below the stage during Eric Clapton’s performance of his ballad Tears in Heaven. The troubled Cobain died just two years later, his death ruled a suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"Some people didn’t quite remember it even happening. Other people swore there was somebody there with a camera," Crowe recalled.

At a time when both men were at the centre of attention because of their music, "Kurt and Eddie got to be alone and kind of express themselves as people. The fact that it was [caught] on film was amazing. It's so poignant."

"The first time I saw that footage, it was incredibly emotional," the singer said. "Just because he's smiling and you just think 'If he just could have pulled through…'"

Coinciding with the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, a book of the same name and a two-disc soundtrack of the music featured in the film will be released.

While many rock ‘n roll film portraits capture friction and strife among band members, Pearl Jam Twenty proved somewhat a challenge because of it’s a positive tale, Crowe said.

"It takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head. The usual rock story is ‘incredible promise, brilliance maybe, tragedy cuts it short and aren't we sad we lost this wonderful opportunity.' Pearl Jam is exactly the opposite," he said.

"These guys found joy through survival...In some ways, it was a hard story to tell because it's a happy ending."

Following its run at the Toronto International Film Festival, Pearl Jam Twenty will be featured in a special one-day only screening in select Cineplex theatres across Canada on Sept. 20. A wider release follows later in September.