A Talk With Cameron Crowe About Pearl Jam Twenty

Cameron Crowe will always be a rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Regardless of the early success Crowe had as a music journalist, followed by cult status acclaim for writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and later as a director/writer for Jerry Maquire, Vanilla Sky and Almost Famous (winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), it’s evident that rock ‘n’ roll music makes his creative world go around. It took him almost 3 years and a lot of love and dedication to put together Pearl Jam Twenty. He also knows how to craft a really good story.

Crowe also contributes a forward to PEARL JAM TWENTY a monster of a book celebrating the band’s longevity. Published by Simon and Schuster, and put together by the band, this book probably has more memorabilia, candid comments and anecdotes then any other book of its kind. It’s a Pearl Jam fans’ rapture.

Pearl Jam Twenty will be shown on PBS October 21, at 9:00 PM. In some areas the day and time may vary. But catch the show; it’s almost as good as a live performance.

And now Cameron Crowe answers some questions for Pop Culture Zoo.

QUESTION: You obviously know as well as anyone what the conventions of the rock-and-roll biopic are. Could you talk about finding the arc of this documentary, particularly the last ten years for the band?

CAMERON CROWE: It’s a good question because the last ten years is basically about them surviving and staying true to a certain ethic. And nobody dies. Nobody ODs. Nobody goes too far off the path of a basic integrity that they paid attention to. So it’s really about what happens with a band that develops an audience and stays with their fans. And their shows, which we tried to show in the film, kind of become this celebration of “We made it.” And I was surprised because we went to see Pearl Jam in 2006, and I hadn’t seen them play for a while. And the shows were completely different than when they began. The shows were about kind of a joyful affirmation. So that was a structure for the film. How do you get from that angst and the explosion of the early years to this state of grace that creates its own model? They really broke a lot of the rules of what it is to be a rock band. And so hopefully we show that in the film.

I also want to say I’m so grateful to be a part of the AMERICAN MASTERS series because I see all the other films, and there’s so many films that I love and I love the Lennon film so much. And I know the band was very excited to be part of the series. It was kind of a club that they were anxious to join.

QUESTION: As a community of musicians in Seattle that both make up the band but also surround the band, how has that affected how their sound and their music has evolved over the years, from your perspective?

CROWE: Well, 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. And one of the things Jeff Ament, the bass player in the group, told me early on is :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 kind of part of the song “Just Breathe.” It’s a fantastic journey, I think, about being true to your roots while still moving on.

QUESTION: You seem like such a natural fit for doing music documentaries. Why haven’t you done them before, and do you anticipate doing one again?

CROWE: Yeah. It was the first thing I ever did, was a documentary on Tom Petty for MTV. And it was so filled with illegal footage. (Laughter.) And it slipped by. It aired, and the calls started coming in while it was on the air. (Laughter.) And they said, “Pull it off. How did this thing air? Get rid of it.” So I think it only aired once. It was so much fun. It was great to kind of come back and do it again.

We did a documentary with Elton John that’s really kind of a fly-on-the-wall, real-time account of his album with Leon Russell. But it’s fun. It’s like journalism – three-dimensional journalism. I just am so happy to kind of finally have a shape and have Pearl Jam Twenty done, because there was so much to draw from. And that is, I think, the challenge. And this is like the [John] Lennon film. You always want the feeling of the artist in the documentary about the artist. 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, what the fan experience would be like.

QUESTION: For people who know Pearl Jam or don’t know who they are, what do you hope they take away from seeing this movie?

CROWE: I think a lot of people knew a lot about Pearl Jam early on. And as you see, 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 what happened – and this was towards the end of the ‘90s – is those people that went out and saw them in these strange, out-of-the-way places never forgot Pearl Jam came to their town. And that became the beginning – that was the start of a new fan base for them. So what I would love people to see is that Pearl Jam, kind of in their own grassroots way, redefined what the fan experience was. They were not a slave really to the first MTV kind of crashing wave of their success. They really went down, cut away all the brush, and started all over again. So what I’d love people to see is that there was no rule book for what they did, and here they are, still together. And it end up being a movie not about some tragic failure, but about an odd and unique kind of success.

QUESTION: Is there a comparison to be made here with the Grateful Dead, that this is a band that, commerciality be damned and because the fan base they have will always be there, even if they never have another hit: they can tour forever and people will follow them?

CROWE: There was a piece that we cut from the film that I really liked where Jeff Ament was talking about the band as a whole went to see the Grateful Dead when Pearl Jam was trying to figure out their way forward. And they went to, actually, a series of Grateful Dead shows, and they saw that a song from an obscure album, never played for 27 years, could get a huge response, more than “Truckin’,” just because the fans were so grateful and so tuned in. And I think they said to each other, “This is the way we can be.”

And that was kind of a flashlight to how they could go forward. And they’ve become a little bit like the Grateful Dead. That’s why we put stuff in the film where we really show what the fan experience with the group is. It’s great that they change their show every night because whatever run of shows you get to see, you’ve going to see completely different experiences. And Eddie’s solo is the same way. And that’s great because the pressures are so high for touring bands now that they tend to have the same show and the same light system, and somebody tells an offhanded joke, and if you see them the next night, you hear the same offhanded joke. And you’re kind of wounded as a fan. But not Pearl Jam.

QUESTION: How long did it take you to look at all this footage?

CROWE: Three years. We had a great team of editors and Andy Fischer. It was our labor of love and our hobby and our quest. And there’s so much and so much that hadn’t been seen.

QUESTION: How much of your personal archives of Pearl Jam did you have collected that you used for this?

CROWE: A lot. I kept and keep everything, so I had these boxes that were filled with stuff, and a lot of it is in the movie – archival piece of music and interviews and stuff like that. And there’s so many different formats that we use in the movie. I did want the whole movie to be a little bit like a box of collectives that you open years later and you keep finding stuff and the flood of memories washes over you and you’re there again.

Watch Pearl Jam Twenty on PBS. See more from American Masters.