Few have managed to merge their love of music and film more than director Cameron Crowe. Starting his career as a writer for Rolling Stone, he penned articles on some of the biggest bands of the ’70s, including Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. He would later go on to write the book Fast Times at Ridgemont High and later direct Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky and his somewhat self-referential biopic, Almost Famous. Most recently, Crowe is at the helm of Pearl Jam Twenty, a retrospective film about the seminal Seattle band. Featuring some of the earliest footage of Pearl Jam, the documentary follows them from its beginnings to its current state, weaving a tale that only Crowe can tell. Life+Times had a chance to chat with the enigmatic director about his work in film, journalism and universal language of music.
Life+Times: Your last two films [The Union and Pearl Jam Twenty] were documentaries. Are you revisiting the journalism of your youth? What pushed you back to non-fiction narratives?
Cameron Crowe: Coincidental. I love music, of course, so it’s a presence in everything I’m working on, but the documentaries came in an organic way. I had covered both artists as a journalist, and they asked if I wanted to profile them film-style. Elton John’s film, The Union, is an almost real-life account of his album with Leon Russell, and Pearl Jam’s is a career-spanning look at the band’s journey.
L+T: What, if anything, did you take from your journalism days and applied to your screenwriting or directing style?
CC: Good question. Documentaries just remind you that the best stuff is often a stolen moment, a second in real-life when somebody reveals themselves in a classic or unforgettable way. You try to build that into the scripts you write, but life is the best writer-director of all and documentaries often show that.
L+T: What drew you to music as a teen? What draws you in now?
CC: It’s elemental. Music truly is the universal language. It’s an emotional shape-shifter, words are barely even necessary. Getting lost in music is my favorite hobby, then and now. It’s the way you feel when a song hits the perfect bridge. That’s my dream of how I’d like my movies to feel from time to time.
L+T: What drew you to Pearl Jam, in particular? Do you see any similarities between them and the bands you covered in the ’70s as a journalist?
CC: Pearl Jam is a direct result of the ’70s. They followed all of those bands, read their interviews voraciously and made their own path based on integrity lessons they learned from watching the Ramones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Stooges, Queen and more. Like those bands, they play for passion and have tried to learn how to best cater to the fans along the way, because Pearl Jam are fans first and foremost. Many of those bands felt like that back in the day, too. Led Zeppelin would get on their plane and watch old rock shows between cities.
L+T: What was it like getting back on the road with Pearl Jam?
CC: They tour beautifully, like a big family. Lots of room for kids and friends backstage, but no waste and nothing too garish. All about music.
L+T: What role did the band members have in the filmmaking process?
CC: Minimal for the first two and a half years, then a flurry of tweaks in the last few months. Mostly over music edits, things like that. They wanted us to do our film, hands-off. Always. “I hope it feels like group therapy,” said bassist Jeff Ament. Mike McCready set a great tone for how candid the interviews would be and everybody followed.
L+T: Pearl Jam has a very devoted and loyal fanbase. What kind of pressures have you felt from them during the process of making this film?
CC: Just inspiration. We love [Pearl Jam fan forum] the Ten Club. We work together. More than once, we went to the fans for details and answers and thoughts. The film is about fandom, in many ways.
L+T: Is rock n’ roll still the same beast it once was? What do you think lies ahead for it?
CC: Rock n’ roll will be around as long as cockroaches and 15-year-old fans roam the earth. There will always be someone with a brilliant idea, who picks up a keyboard or a guitar, and speaks the truth loudly with feedback. And the rock experience will begin again.