PJ20; Or, The Perils of Nostalgia

I have been thinking quite a lot about nostalgia lately, for reasons that are doubtless evident to anyone who is a regular reader. If it was not already clear, this blog is a catalog of my obsessions in real-time, and I have got it bad right now for the days of yore. It has been a little surreal to watch my own preoccupations dovetail so neatly with the current pop-culture obsession with the nineties--and of course, by "the nineties" pop culture means, as it usually does, "the white dudes of the nineties" (although, to be fair, I did hear Boyz II Men blaring out of a car the other day).

Pearl Jam Twenty is in so many ways a perfect vehicle for discussing the perils of nostalgia; it is not a film so much as a hagiography, so reverent of its subjects that it fails to tell the viewer anything about them whatsoever. If we are to believe Cameron Crowe's version of history, Pearl Jam sprang fully formed out of the ashes of Andrew Wood's passage like a phoenix, and rose to stardom in a vaccuum stripped of context, or even of other bands. Nirvana gets under a minute, Alice in Chains a single sentence ("We opened for Alice in Chains in Vancouver"); Soundgarden is mentioned only because the band's frontman, Chris Cornell, provides occasional (and weirdly twitchy) commentary supporting Crowe's thesis that Pearl Jam is a band composed of saints and brothers. There are absolutely no women in this movie--I mean, really, there are no women. Someone points out the back of Susan Silver's head in a video, there is a two-second uncredited clip of Mia Zapata performing in the film's initial "grunge" montage, Eddie Vedder makes a reference to wearing D'Arcy's bra on MTV, and someone mentions Andy Wood's girlfriend Xana in passing. That's it. Mike McCready is shown with a rosy-cheeked toddler on his lap during parts of his present-day interview; presumably that baby came from somewhere, but we'll never know.

To be sure, there's no shortage of great moments. They are great in spite of Cameron Crowe and not because of him, but they are great all the same: the stunning live footage of the band's early shows; their magnificently disastrous performance at the MTV Singles release party; the clip of a helmet-wearing Eddie Vedder and a pajama-clad Kurt Cobain slow-dancing; Stone Gossard finding a Grammy in his basement; a stricken, incredibly young Vedder holding up polaroids he's taken from the stage of a forty-thousand person crowd and telling the cameraman he never wanted it to be like that. And oh my god, Jeff Ament's clothes.

But anything more complicated is swiftly glossed over. Addiction problems are barely mentioned; the band's shift from Stone Gossard's creative direction to Eddie Vedder's is presented as seamless; and Seattle (represented by a couple of black-and-white shots of ferries) is summarized as a loving community where everyone supported each other and unconditionally wished the best for one another. There's no explanation for why Pearl Jam survived, and still make music together, in a scene where many of the major players are dead or no longer speaking to one another. Ironic, really, since it was never, ever cool to like Pearl Jam (O reader! The shit I endured, from the Nirvana-listening punk boys of my youth, for loving this band!); Pearl Jam made music for girls. But here they are, still going strong, still helmed by the enigmatic Eddie Vedder, who seems only barely more able now to navigate the perils of fame than he did as a suicidally stage-diving kid barely out of his teens. PJ20 is infuriating in its stubborn refusal to take any kind of risk, and the result is a muddled jumble of archival footage and shots of the band members in their living rooms, looking solemn and telling the viewer nothing at all about themselves, about the larger story, about why people cared then and why we should care now.

Near the end of the film, there's a clip of a 2010 show at Madison Square Garden. Eddie Vedder begins "Better Man," only to step away from the mike as a massive crowd sings every word, lighters waving. It's a moment that, for me, captures everything Pearl Jam was to me: clich├ęd, almost painfully earnest, and yet genuinely moving. It's a moment that reminds us that music is also a kind of communion; that a truly great live show is as much a religious experience as a musical one. The fact that for twenty years a single group of people has managed to elicit that kind of emotion in its audience is something extraordinary, and it is a disservice to both the artist and the audience to erase the context that made a story like that possible.

There is no profit in looking at the past with blinders, and there's no useful story that comes out of it, either. We betray our own stories when we rewrite them with all the hard parts left out, when we make them over so that everyone is young and beautiful and no one ever cried. Nostalgia doesn't just make for bad history; it makes for bad art. We are not obliged, as artists, to tell the truth, but we will never be good if we choose not to tell the whole story.