Love. Understanding. Commitment. Luck. Ask Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready how the band has managed to thrive for twenty years, and he’ll tell you this is the recipe. Less than an hour after the Saturday (Sept. 10 ) premiere of Cameron Crowe’s deep-diving doc chronicling the band’s full history, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” at the Toronto International Film Festival, the director and full band sat down with the press to discuss the film and to look back — and forward.
The ‘Pearl Jam Twenty’ trailer
“I always felt the story of Pearl Jam was a great story,” said Crowe, whose 1992 film “Singles” included the band as actors. “It takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head. The usual rock story is incredible promise, brilliance maybe, then tragedy cuts it short, and aren’t we sad we’ve lost this wonderful opportunity. Pearl Jam is exactly the opposite. It’s a tragedy that was surmounted and these guys found joy through survival.”
“Whatever way we’re doing it, it’s still reaching out in the dark,” frontman Eddie Vedder said, “But it seems to be working.”
With “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which will be in theaters worldwide on Sept. 20, Crowe did not simply choose to simply move chronologically through the band’s unlikely formation following the death of pre-PJ band Mother Love Bone’s singer Andy Wood, how a tape of instrumentals became 1991’s “Ten” when it found its way to a San Diego singer named Eddie Vedder, the glare of fame that grew brighter through the early 90s, the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and the battle with Ticketmaster in 1994, the concert tragedy at Roskilde in Denmark in 2000, and the years of jubilant, epic live shows since.
The montage of Eddie Vedder’s acrobatic antics at early Pearl Jam shows, from ‘Pearl Jam Twenty’
Instead, Crowe tackles these things by interleaving glimpses from the present with the past, and lets the band, an incredible variety of rare and never-before-seen footage of concerts, backstage moments, interviews and even guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament’s testimony before Congress about Ticketmaster, tell the tale. The narrative moves smoothly, but there is always a sense of the now mixed in, as a present-day Eddie Vedder tells his past self, “Be careful, young man.” Perhaps unsurprisingly the music — particularly the many, many live moments — shines especially, from the montage of wild 1991-1992 shows capturing Vedder swinging like Tarzan from venue ceilings, ledges, and lighting rigs around the world, to video of Gossard and Vedder writing “Daughter” on a tour bus, to the joyful full-crowd singalong at a 2010 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
As evidenced by the film, fame burned almost too bright in the mid-90s — but Vedder says its the many fans who made their longevity possible. “What we had at the time was too much for me as a human and even as a writer,” Vedder said. “We had to take responsibility for that…There are photos of a truck crash with the woman inside it bloody [in the film, of a stalker who literally crashed Vedder’s home]. That was an incredibly serious deal. That was the day of the  Grammy Awards. That’s where [my] life was at the time. And now I’m really proud that we have lives that we can live and be who we want to be. We’re very grateful to the people who have listened to us over the years. They seem to have a certain respect for that, and allow us that. It’s a relationship. We couldn’t do it with out them.”
“I don’t think we would have taken this thing on,” Gossard said, “had it not been [for] Cameron being open to the task of looking through the footage and seeing if there’s a story to be told. Once we knew that he was involved we trusted that it was going be ok.”
Crowe had many moments he wanted to include in the film that he didn’t think existed, but “the holy grail really was the piece of footage of Kurt Cobain and Eddie slow-dancing at the VMAs… We did find that footage. And it’s so powerful and it is such a human moment ; it is what happens out side the glare of the spotlight. They were really in a blender of media explosiveness at that time and here was this moment below the stage while Eric Clapton is playing tears in heaven where Kurt and Eddie got to be alone and kind of express themselves as people. The fact that it’s on film is amazing.”
“The first time I saw that footage it was incredibly emotional. Just because he’s smiling. you just think that if he just could have pulled through,” Vedder said. “That’s the thing about today, maybe it’s good that this movie happened now. We’ve been in appreciation mode of each other for quite some time… You look at each other and all the crowd reaction or the family that is the people that come to see the shows… it’s really something to witness and in this case be reminded of it , so we can appreciate it even more and know that we have a really strong base to go the next 20 [years].”
Bassist Ament concurs that looking back has inspired new music. The band has debuted two new songs in the last week, an untitled acoustic ballad at Sept. 3-4’s PJ20 festival, and rocker “Olé” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and at PJ20.com on Sept. 8. “Being in the middle of this,” Ament says. “We only had a little bit of time off, a few weeks, but we carved out half that time to got into the studio and record some new songs… It reminded us of the job at hand, where we’re headed.”
Pearl Jam’s Canadian tour continues tonight (Sept. 11) in Toronto. The film’s accompanying book, also titled “Pearl Jam Twenty,” is available Sept. 13. The 29-song soundtrack reaches fans on Sept. 20.