To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Seattle rockers Pearl Jam, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and music journalist Cameron Crowe has created a portrait of the seminal band that not only showcases his love for them, but also why so many fans from all over the world have found meaning in their music. Part concert film and part testimonial, the nearly 3,000 hours of footage that was combed through for Pearl Jam Twenty, clearly could have only been compiled by someone from their inner circle, which also makes the band interviews that much more personal. The film illustrates the freedom that allowed Pearl Jam a way to make music without losing sight of what mattered most to them — their fans and the music fans that they themselves had always been.
While at the PBS portion of the TCAs, Cameron Crowe talked about his personal friendship with Pearl Jam and what it took to compile their experiences into this film. Here are the most interesting points of the interview:
- Cameron Crowe’s first music documentary was on Tom Petty, and it was filled with so much illegal footage that it only aired once and had to be pulled.
- It took three years to go through close to 3,000 hours of footage, in putting this film together, and Crowe hopes that people see that there was no rule book for what Pearl Jam has done, and that they never stopped caring about the music or their fans.
- In making the film, Crowe had to balance being close enough to the band to get interviews that nobody else would get, while still being tough enough to give people the experience of the band.
- Crowe is currently editing his next film, We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning. Says Jónsi from Sigur Rós is doing the score.
- Say Anything is the only thing he’s written that he would ever consider doing a sequel for. Says,”It’s the only thing that I’ve written that I would consider doing that with. I’ve thought about it, from time to time, and talked about it with John Cusack once. I think there might be another chapter to that, at some point.”
Hit the jump for more:
Having been a fan since Ten first came out, I have personally seen the band in concert more times than I can count (or care to admit), both all over California and a number of times in Seattle, and can attest to the power of their live performances. Their music has undoubtedly made an impact on my life, and getting to see such personal footage, documenting their 20-year history, was truly spectacular. The film is a uniquely personal reflection on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a band that will forever be a part of music history, and I highly recommend taking the time to see it. After its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it will open for one day in select cities on September 20th, then premiere on PBS on October 21st, before coming out on DVD on October 25th.
Here is more of what Cameron Crowe had to say:
Question: Why haven’t you done a music documentary before this one?
CAMERON CROWE: The first thing I ever did was a documentary on Tom Petty for MTV, and it was so filled with illegal footage that it aired and the calls started coming in, while it was on the air. They said, “Pull it off. How did this thing air? Get rid of it.” I think it only aired once. It was called “Heartbreaker’s Beach Party,” and it was so much fun. It was great to come back and do it again. We also did a documentary with Elton John, that’s really a fly-on-the-wall, real-time account of his album with Leon Russell, but it was fun. It’s like three-dimensional journalism. I just am so happy to finally have Pearl Jam Twenty done because there was so much to draw from. That’s the challenge. It’s always strange when somebody puts a different feeling on their account of an artist that they love or are covering, so we wanted it to feel like a Pearl Jam movie and what the fan experience would be like.
What would you say to people who wonder why Pearl Jam would be the first choice, when looking at a group that changed music from that era? Why not Nirvana?
CROWE: Well, I would say go to Charlie Cross’ writing about Nirvana. A filmmaker that was close to that epicenter would be the person to make that film, and I would be first in line to see a Nirvana film. But, my experience was seeing Pearl Jam, from the beginning, and seeing how they operated, from the inside out. I thought, “If I could get that on film, then that’s the film I should be making about them.” That was what we went for. To them, Nirvana was an inspiration, an obstacle, a source of discontent and jubilation, and ultimately shock and pain when Kurt died. I tried to come at it from the point of view of what it was like to be close to the Nirvana experience, and what it was like for them. I would love to see somebody dig into the whole Nirvana story, as Dave Grohl has started to, in his documentary on the Foo Fighters.
CROWE: The band has changed, and they talk about that pretty openly in the film. The band started out as Stone Gossard’s group and really evolved into Eddie’s band. One of the things Jeff Ament, the bass player, told me early on was, “I hope this movie is like group therapy. I want to learn about us.” So, we really tried to get the interviews to discuss all that, and the dynamic, and how the songs have changed. I know Eddie, in particular, says, “I don’t work so hard at trying to get every song to be three-dimensional and mean so much. I just want to breathe, right now, with the music,” which is part of their song “Just Breathe.” It’s a fantastic journey, about being true to your roots while still moving on.
What do you hope people take away from seeing this?
CROWE: I think a lot of people knew a lot about Pearl Jam, early on, and then they took an odd course. They took on Ticketmaster and had to play their own concerts in the hinterlands, and some of the concerts were real failures, logistically and physically. But, those people that went out and saw them in these strange, out-of-the-way places, never forgot that Pearl Jam came to their town, and that was the start of a new fan base for them. So, what I would love people to see is that Pearl Jam, in their own grassroots way, redefined what the fan experience was. They were not a slave to the first crashing wave of their success. I’d love people to see that there was no rule book for what they did, and here they are, still together. It ends up being a movie, not about some tragic failure, but about an odd and unique success.
CROWE: Yes. When I first met Eddie, he was a guy who literally could not look up. His hair would be a wall, and he’d just sit there and be grateful to be a part of everything. As the band exploded, he became fearful and upset. In the Pinkpop footage, you can see where he’s just gotten all this love from the audience, but it’s double-edged because he’s not sure he’s worthy of it. I think what Eddie had to do was develop armor and reinvent himself as a tougher, more artistically true-to-himself guy. That’s what he did. He’s no longer that guy. He’s very, very much in control of the music, and it’s inspiring.
How did you come to decide the way you would deal with the issue of all the drummers the band has had?
CROWE: There was so much to say about the drummers, I just thought we’d take a comic approach. There’s a lot of stuff, even in articles that I’ve written, about Dave [Abbruzzese] and his relationship with the band, and I think we cover it a little bit in some of the DVD extras. It’s seismic, every time they change drummers, and Eddie tells you a little bit about it in the film, but I didn’t want to get waylaid into a lot of the well-established avenues that a rock documentary gets into. If you’re a fan, you know what’s being said, and there are other places you can read more about it. That was an issue we wrestled with.
How challenging is it to put together something that’s honest to the work that you’re doing, while being fair to the band?
CROWE: It’s like, if you rip the scab off a little bit from issues that need to be dealt with and make people uncomfortable, but ultimately comfortable enough to tell you about it in your interviews, you’re going to get something unique. I wanted to be close enough to get interviews that nobody else would get, but still be tough, at the same time, to give you the experience of the band. They chafed at stuff, along the way. I want to ask the questions that a fan, given a front-row seat, would ask, but I also want to be tough when you need to be tough and capture what the experience is, so that when you listen to the music, you can also see the film or read the article, and it’s all part of the same journey that you get to take with the artist you’re interested in. It’s a balancing act.
Just how much footage did you have to go through, and how long did it take you to get through it all?
CROWE: It really was close to 3,000 hours of footage, including the live stuff, that we went through. It was fun. It took three years to get through. We had a great team of editors. It was our labor of love, our hobby and our quest. There was so much, and so much that hadn’t been seen.
What jumped out at you, in terms of their performances now?
CROWE: Eddie still means all these songs, when he sings them. They still feel it. Some of them are pretty aching, content wise, but they don’t just go through the motions. The live footage is generally riveting, in that way. If you come back and check in with Pearl Jam, what you will see is that they never stopped caring. Even if you weren’t there, they still were connecting to whatever audience they had. The experience is still fresh.
CROWE: I’m a big Andrew Wood fan. I thought Andrew Wood was one the of amazing pieces of this story, and I felt his voice so strongly, making the film. That’s why the film begins with Andrew Wood, and Eddie Vedder doesn’t make an appearance in the movie until 10 minutes in. That’s how it felt, at the time. It was Andrew Wood’s town, and he died, and that affected everybody. The guy was such a true soul. To see the sands of time cover that memory up was wrong to me, so that’s where we began, in telling the story. On their 10th anniversary, when Pearl Jam played one of Andy Wood’s greatest songs, and Eddie decides that he wants to sing the music of this guy he replaced, who changed all their lives, it’s such an emotional moment that I thought, “Let’s be true to that emotion and just let it rip in the movie. Let’s pay tribute to Andy.” It’s probably what I’m proudest of – that people could see this movie and walk away and say, “Wow, there was a guy before Eddie Vedder, that created all of it. I want to listen more to his stuff.” I hope that happens.
What is the role of Seattle in the film and its importance in the music scene?
CROWE: It’s still important to all the guys and to us, making the film, as a big part of the music. They all still live there. It’s not like they got rich and left. It’s still a big part of their lives, and it’s a unique place to be, hearing it and making the music. So, it’s in there, but hopefully in an atypical way. It’s from the inside looking out, rather than, “Here’s the grunge scene, and here’s where this happened.”
Do you think the explosion of that scene and how important that was to the music of the 90’s changed that place at all?
CROWE: It did, and the pendulum swung back a little bit to where it is now, which is kind of like when I first went up there. It’s such a powerful thing. There’s a texture to all those people and their lives, where they didn’t let it change them that much.
You focus a bit of the film on Roskilde and the affect it had on the band that nine people died at that music festival, and what a dark period that was for them after. How deeply did that affect them and how close did they actually get to not coming back together as a band?
CROWE: Yeah, it’s a big part of the story, and it was important that that was a pillar in the movie, too. I think they still live with it. There’s a lot that’s been done quietly, to stay close to the families, that they don’t talk about, but that we touch on a little bit. But, feeling that mortality and seeing what they saw – as Stone [Gossard] talks about seeing bodies being pulled over the barrier without life – they never forgot it, and I think that’s an undercurrent in their music now. It’s a sadness mixed with the joy, that’s very real.
What are your favorite Pearl Jam songs?
CROWE: I love “Release.” I love “Rearview Mirror.” And, I love their acoustic stuff. I love “Thumbing My Way.” If you’re a fan of the band, you know that your favorites one year, change in another year. That’s one of the great things of having such a great body of work. The songs mean so much to the fans. They know all the words, and Eddie feels them understanding what the songs are about, when he sings the songs. I love watching that.
What’s the origin of your fascination with music?
CROWE: It came with loving film and seeing movies as a kid, like The Graduate, and hearing how powerful those Simon & Garfunkel songs were. I wanted to follow the path of music and feel that power, and I couldn’t turn back. The power of music is still with me, every day. It’s one of the most inspiring things available in the world. I write with music. I write scenes in movies that hopefully can earn the use of some songs that are powerful to me. But, I think it just came from being affected by strong, personal art.
Do you think Pearl Jam is still making significant music?
CROWE: I do. If you listen to a song like “The End” or “Just Breathe” from Backspacer, you can feel it. It’s real and it’s passionate. I wish we could have gotten more of the Backspacer era in the film. There was just so much from the earlier years that we wanted to cover. But yeah, I think they continue to be worthy of our attention, in a very rare and wonderful way.
Did you ever dream of being a rock star yourself?
CROWE: That’s the most horrifying idea I could even think of. That would be the worst. No, my dream is to do exactly what I’m doing. I love writing and directing, and being somebody that can write about an artist I love or make a film about it. That’s great. I would leave the other stuff to those who do it much better.
What can you say about the film you’re currently working on?
CROWE: We are in the editing process on We Bought a Zoo, which is based on a book by Benjamin Mee, who lost his wife and brought a dilapidated zoo back to life, saving his family and a large part of the community. It’s a great true story. I read a script by Aline Brosh McKenna that I thought was wonderful. I thought, “It would be really fun, as a director, to get some actors that I love and build this world.” A lot of it is in the vein of the Bill Forsyth film, Local Hero, which had a great score by Mark Knopfler. Matt Damon plays the main character, with Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Haden Church, and a lot of really fun actors. It’s coming out for Christmas. The movie is being scored by Jónsi from Sigur Rós. I love Sigur Rós, and Jónsi has done this amazing score for us. We played his music a lot in the making of the movie, along with some Pearl Jam and Neil Young. Matt Damon is a big fan of all this music, so we literally started playing music during one of his takes on the first day, and he said, “You’ve gotta keep it coming, man. Keep it coming.” So, that’s how we made We Bought a Zoo. It was very much a music-filled experience.
Have you considered doing a sequel to Say Anything and letting people know what happened to Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack)?
CROWE: It’s the only thing that I’ve written that I would consider doing that with. I’ve thought about it, from time to time, and talked about it with John Cusack once. I think there might be another chapter to that, at some point. I will keep it in mind. We would have to keep the guy that Lloyd Dobler has to drive home from the prom party. He’s got to come back.