Even if you're not a fan of the band, Cameron Crowe's stellar Pearl Jam Twenty is worthy of a full-arena standing-o. Insightful, at times unsettling and buoyed by an all-access pass to one of rock's most fascinating subjects on their 20th anniversary, this is truly a doc that rocks. Here, former Rolling Stone writer-turned-filmmaker Crowe (We Bought a Zoo) discusses his labor of love, which re-airs tonight on American Masters (PBS, 9/8c, check local listings).
TV Guide Magazine: What was your first experience with Pearl Jam?
Cameron Crowe: You know, this is interesting. I knew I wanted to write [1992's] Singles, and I had met Stone Gossard [lead guitarist] and Jeff Ament [bassist] through Heart's publicist and tour manager. He was working with the guys — they were working at a coffee shop. And I loved this idea of "they were bands, but they had this day job and they were pulling espresso, living in each other's pockets." I thought "I want to interview these guys for Singles." So I first met them as research subject for the movie. Then I started listening to their music and I loved their earlier band, Mother Love Bone, so somewhere in the boxes in my house are these interviews where I'm talking to them just about their lifestyle.
TV Guide Magazine: Seattle back then was the new bohemia...
Crowe: Yeah! And on these tapes, I'm like, "So tell me about your girlfriends," and stuff they would never talk about now! [Laughs]. But that's how I met them. And they're in the movie.
TV Guide Magazine: They're the coffee shop guys in Singles, right?
Crowe: Exactly! But before the coffee culture took off and Starbucks, it was just these types of guys pulling coffee, man.
TV Guide Magazine: Considering your love of music-themed moviemaking, do you see this documentary as the third in your music trilogy?
Crowe: That's interesting, I never thought about that. Maybe. That's kind of cool to hear you say that.
TV Guide Magazine: Well you have Singles with the struggling bands, 2000's Almost Famous centers on [fictional group] Stillwater at their height, and now this, a real band showing the journey from struggle to success.
Crowe: I'll sign on for that. That's a cool idea! I also think it would be great if in some way, Pearl Jam's story is a little bit of a manual for other bands that are struggling to fit into the framework of playing these days. They can see this and say, "Well, they did it their own way...they said no."
TV Guide Magazine: You also show the growing pains of how one member saying no can really test a band.
Crowe: It's true. They do knock heads. It's good that they were able to tell their story and be unpretentious about with, without it being like tablets being handed down from the lofty position of success.
TV Guide Magazine: Was it your choice to interview them individually? We only see them off-camera in a group a few times.
Crowe: I would have, but I don't think they were ever having a group meeting together that they would let us film. The best thing would have been to film them after seeing the documentary. But we are not that brilliant. [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: As a fan, how did you stay objective?
Crowe: I wanted to be a fan who didn't get shortchanged on the experience of the movie. So I tried to always use access — and the fact that I knew them — to make them comfortable enough to give the kind of interviews they never do. You always see a presentational thing, like [in a stern voice] "The biography of the group." They're always telling you the lore. So what we tried is to just film them enough and just ease into the interview so that it comes from a conversation. That's why Stone Gossard is usually just talking on his couch. Or while driving in his car.
TV Guide Magazine: And the coolest part is that a lot of their comments aren't about just their shows, or what they did, but how they felt about the experience. We get to find out what they went through.
Crowe: Thanks. That doesn't work with everybody. A lot of times, you ask a subject how they felt doing something and they'll be like, "What do you mean, feel? We made the record, what are you a shrink?" These guys did answer those questions. It's so cool that you noticed that.
TV Guide Magazine: And how were the guys once you got around to interviewing them?
Crowe: They were chill. Eddie [Vedder, frontman] was a little nervous, but he brought it. He's very open in the interview. We did it in his old basement.
TV Guide Magazine: Great documentaries ultimately teach us not just about the subject, but ourselves. What did you learn about the band and yourself?
Crowe: Wow. I felt challenged by knowing them so well, and also wanting to get out the proper stuff. And then I felt surprised that they did exactly what Jeff Ament said [about making the movie]...they wanted to know more about each other and feel like group therapy a bit. I felt exhilarated to be back in a journalist mode and also, that so many of the emotions going back to the beginning of the band were still so present and raw in all of them. Particularly Eddie. I learned that it was hard for Eddie to watch a lot of the early footage, which feels iconic to us. But to him, it's slightly embarrassing...he was trying so hard. I think he got hung up on the [idea] of wanting to do something people would never forget. But it was fun to be on the ride...most of all, I learned how much I love journalism.
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