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American Masters – Celebrating its 25th anniversary with Pearl Jam

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American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam Twenty - Pearl Jam © 2011 PBS

In honor of Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary, award-winning director and music journalist Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) creates a definitive portrait of the seminal band, based on over 1,200 hours of rarely- and never-before-seen footage, plus 24 hours of recently shot concert and interview footage. The documentary can been seen on PBS’ American Masters, which is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary.

You know as well as anyone the conventions of the rock-and-roll biopic, but Pearl Jam’s lifespan hasn’t really gone that way. Could you talk about finding the arc of this documentary, particularly the last ten years for the band?

American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Cameron Crowe
Cameron Crowe at TCAs © 2011 PBS

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,’ I was surprised because we went to see Pearl Jam in 2006, and I hadn’t seen them play for awhile. And the shows were completely different than when they began. The shows were about 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 hopefully we show that in the film.

You are known as a guy who has done a lot of great work by hanging out and getting close to a band, and then having to produce work that maybe they didn’t want to see. So can you tell me about putting together something that’s honest to the work that you’re doing, but also fair to the band?

American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam © 2011 PBS

It’s a really good question. 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 particularly get, but still be tough at the same time, to give you the experience of the band. They chafed at stuff along the way.

We argued for things that we felt needed to be in there, and Eddie (Vedder) and the guys (Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready) moved with us to tell the story the way we did.

American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Matt Cameron and Cameron Crowe
Matt Cameron and Cameron Crowe © 2011 PBS

That’s pretty much how I operated as a journalist too. It’s like I want to ask the questions that a fan, given a front-row seat, would ask.

I want to be tough when you need to be tough and basically 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.

The film starts with a bit of narration from you, and then we see you a few more times on camera. How did you decide how much of Cameron Crowe to put in this movie?

American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Cameron Crowe and Mike McCready
Cameron Crowe and Mike McCready © 2011 PBS

I get completely embarrassed seeing myself up there or even doing voice-overs. Some people have said, ‘Why don’t you come back and wrap it up?’ And I just kind of wanted to nudge the movie along and say from time to time, ‘Here is what I observed at the time,’ and put things in context.

How much of your personal archives of Pearl Jam that you have collected that you mined for this?

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 pieces of music and interviews.

There’s so many different formats that we use in the movie. I wanted 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.

Do you think Pearl Jam is still making significant music?

American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam © 2011 PBS

I do. I think you listen to a song like The End or Just Breathe and you can feel it. It’s real and it’s passionate. I just think they continue to be worthy of our attention in a very rare and wonderful way.

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

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.

This was towards the end of the ‘90s. Those people that went out and saw them in these strange, out-of-the-way places will never forgot that Pearl Jam came to their town. And that was the start of a new fan base for them.

American Masters, Pearl Jam Twenty - Cameron Crowe and Eddie Vedder
Cameron Crowe and Eddie Vedder © 2011 PBS

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 to the first MTV 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 ends up being a movie not about some tragic failure, but about an odd and unique kind of success.