“Pearl Jam Twenty” premiers on PBS

Ryan Hodges / Washburn Review

This is not your typical “Behind the Music” story. The tale begins with tragedy and follows a band through its rebirth and its meteoric rise to the highest levels of success and then its staunch refusal to either “burn out or fade away.”

“Pearl Jam Twenty” directed by Cameron Crowe (“Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” “Almost Famous” and “Vanilla Sky”) premieres on PBS at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 as part of the “American Masters” series and repeats at 1 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. Additionally, Pearl Jam’s appearance on Austin City Limits from 2009 will be shown at 11 p.m. Oct. 22.

The documentary tracks the band from its Phoenix-like birth through its ‘90s growth and success and into a mature band comfortable with its place in the world.

Pearl Jam’s original story begins with the March 19, 1990, heroin overdose of Andrew Wood, singer for up-and-coming Seattle band Mother Love Bone. Following Wood’s overdose, guitarist Stone Gossard and bass player Jeff Ament went on a musical hiatus and were only drawn back into the musical fold by Wood’s former roommate, Chris Cornell, singer in the band Soundgarden.

Cornell had written a pair of songs in tribute to Wood and wanted Wood’s former bandmates to record them. The three, along with Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready, who had been recently added to the Gossard/Ament camp, recorded “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” for what would become the band Temple of The Dog’s self-titled album.

As companions to Crowe’s documentary, the band has also recently released a sountrack album and book, both also entitled “Pearl Jam Twenty.” The soundtrack features 29 live, rare and previously unreleased tracks that span the band’s complete history.

Highlights of the album include a performance of “Alive” from the band’s second-ever concert on Dec. 22, 1990, at Seattle’s Moore Theater, The band, then known as Mookie Blaylock, already exudes the passion and intensity that would serve them so well in years to come.

Another standout track is a cover of Neil Young’s “Walk With Me.”

The two songs, recorded 20 years apart, perfectly encapsulate the band, its music and its history. The book serves as a pictorial timeline of the band and features interviews with the band, as well as friends such as Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Neil Young.

The one aspect of the band’s history that both the film and book fail to adequately address is “the drummer situation.” In a series of events worthy of Spinal Tap, the band ran through five drummers in the span of eight years. The movie tackles the subject in a flippant tone and a scene that involves Godzilla rising from the sea to consume an unsuspecting drummer.

The book features interviews with the band’s first drummer, Dave Krusen, who left the band shortly after the recording of their debut album “Ten” and his temporary replacement Matt Chamberlin. Both drummers detail their time with the band and their reasons for leaving. However, there is a large blank from the time Dave Abbruzzese joined the band in late 1991 through his abrupt departure in late 1994. It is clear that there is still some bad blood between the band and Abbruzzese, who is neither heard from nor spoken about in the film and the book.

The exit of Abbruzzese’s replacement, Jack Irons, is also a sensitive subject for the band. Joining the band for the first time at 1994’s Bridge School Benefit Concert, Irons played a critical role in both the band’s formation and their evolution. It was Irons, who had formerly played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who passed along a tape of instrumental demos that Gossard, Ament and McCready were working on to his San Diego surfing buddy Eddie Vedder. Vedder wrote lyrics and sang over those instrumentals for what would eventually become the songs “Alive,” “Once” and “Footsteps.” While not spending too much time on the subject in the film, Irons details the mental health problems that led him to abruptly quit the band just prior to their 1998 U.S. tour in the accompanying book.

Pearl Jam came full circle in 1998 when Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who had played on some of the band’s earliest instrumental demos and worked with members of the band in Temple of the Dog, became a permanent member of the band.

“Pearl Jam Twenty” doesn’t spend as much time covering the band’s second half as it does their first, but the emotional impact of the last 10 years is still felt. The highlight of the last 10 years of the band focuses on the tragedy at the Roskilde Festival in 2000 during which nine fans were crushed to death during the band’s performance. The band openly discusses their grief and how it has affected every move they have made in the last 10 years. The band members have clearly matured by this point and the mood is definitely reflective of that. Amidst this grief, the band is shown playing their 10th anniversary show on Oct. 22, 2000, in Las Vegas.

While always a “political” band, a performance of the song “Bu$hleaguer” from 2002’s Riot Act album, shows an antagonism between the band and its audience. Captured during a April 30, 2003, performance at Uniondale, N.Y., Vedder appears onstage wearing a sparkly silver jacket and wearing a George W. Bush mask. Vedder removes the mask and places it on a microphone stand, giving the effigy a cigarette as well as several swigs from a bottle of wine. The disapproving boos from the crowd are clearly heard and Vedder shrugs it all off by saying, “You didn’t like that one?”

Ultimately, “Pearl Jam Twenty” is about the fans that have stuck by a band through 20 years of tragedy, controversy and triumph. Crowe, who has known the band since its earliest days, has produced a love letter to Pearl Jam and its music.

In addition to the book and soundtrack which are currently available, “Pearl Jam Twenty” will be released through retail on blu-ray and DVD starting October 25.