PJ20 / by Rollie Agado

Early this morning, I penned a quick review of the PJ20 Documentary and sent it off to a few friends I thought would be interested in catching it when it airs on PBS Oct. 21st


A big part of me wishes that I penned this review after I got out of the theater last night…  I’m running on something like 4 hours of sleep, so my thoughts on this write up are going to be incoherent and a bit incomplete.

PJ20 can be split up into two parts

The Good :  Pearl Jam couldn’t pick a person better than Cameron Crowe at the editing table for both the film and the musical narrative…   Like Scorsese with both Dylan (No Direction Home) and the Stones (Shine a Light)  -  Cameron has been intimately involved with both the music and artist(s) off camera for the past 25 years.  If you’re familiar with the Who’s rockumentary THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - you’ll sorta get an idea of what the picture is going to be like.

The documentary firmly roots itself by starting with the rise and fall of Mother Love Bone (Andy Wood) at the beginning of the picture…  and while this story is pretty well documented already, there are some incredibly tender moments shared by both Jeff Ament and Chris Cornell about his untimely passing.   The documentary then spends the next 50 minutes or so cutting together some of the most amazing unseen footage of the band in its infancy.   It’s weird how well the band has documented their existence in both visual and audio mediums…  Cameron had his work cut out for him when he had to sift through the 30,000 hours of footage to produce the 110 minutes we saw last night.  If you’re of the opinion that the band’s finest moments were between the albums TEN and VS - I think its safe to say that the picture is front loaded enough for it to be worthy of a viewing.

*spoiler* of sorts here…  the documentary talks a little bit about the “rivalry” of Nirvana and PJ, mainly the jabbing of Cobain to Vedder.  One thing that gets featured is the legendary backstage waltz of Vedder and Cobain at the 92 VMA’s.

The sound mix was also amazing…  Henry and I sat in the far back/right part of the theater and I found parts of the film so engrossing that I forgot I wasn’t at an actual live performance.   Henry commented to me that he was actually moved to tears when they showcased a live performance of “Betterman” where the audience completely sings the introduction of the song before reaching the bridge.

The Bad :  The documentary rarely put the members of the band under any critical lens…  by that I mean - you see the band struggle with stardom but it doesn’t exam in depth the internal struggle within the band during the Vitalogy/No Code era of the band.  The documentary firmly showcases how the band became the largest and most recognizable band on earth for a brief period of time…  While the band has repeatedly talked about how they never wanted to be thrust into the spotlight - both Stone and Jeff are on record wanting to be in a band that got signed, that would perform on big stages and would be in many ways like the 70’s rock bands they admired.

I once read that whats intrinsically wrong with pearl jam is that they’re a band with a Fugazi heart (who get mentioned and showcased in the documentary) but are in a Aerosmith body.

I think there’s some resentment with Stone to Vedder that at their creative peak - the band took a direction where they purposely alienated themselves from each other (which sorta gets mentioned when they talk about Vedder driving to gigs in a van, while the band flew) and how the music in many ways began to challenge its listeners.

This is where I think the documentary goes a little flat for me.   I think the most interesting part of the PJ story (within the band/the music/the public activism) resides in the recording of Vitalogy, and No Code.   Even the artwork was insane.  No musical artist had approached their major label and said - lets develop a CD sleeve that resembles 20th century medical book.  Only to follow that up by NO CODE - where they asked the label to release 9 different cassette covers for a dying medium -  the CD version (purposely) had 9 of 13 Polaroids which contained lyrics to the track listing…   To truly complete the artwork you would have to get the four printings of the album C, O, D and E - there was no way however to distinguish them from the cover of the album because there was “no code”.  I honestly don’t know how someone from SONY/Epic wasn’t interviewed regarding the concessions they made to produce this shit.

Then there’s the “drummer” thing.  This actually gets addressed very briefly in the documentary, but not in the detail I think it truly deserves.

Present Tense;  We see the members of pearl jam - very apart from one another when they’re not touring.   Stone keeps nothing “pearl jam” within his home…   Jeff lives on some remote location in Montana.   Eddie, conducts his interview in some contrived location where he’s around some half painted portraits, a ukelele in hand and he has a fireman pole of sorts in his home.  Mike, sorta touches on his drug abuse - but it’s was not examined in depth.  He’s sorta just happy to be along on the ride I guess….

The documentary will air on October 21st on PBS.  It will also be released on DVD/Blueray with a crazy 3 disc version I’m tempted to purchase if I have some assurance that the documentary goes further in depth.

- rollie -