A Conversation With Chris Perkel, Editor of 'Pearl Jam Twenty'

It was never easy being a Pearl Jam fan. The explosion of hype and overexposure that came with Ten and Vs. fueled an instant mainstream backlash by the “cool indie kids.” If you were going to listen to grunge, Nirvana was the band you were supposed to like. The experimental, less radio-friendly Vitalogy and No Code — as well as the annoying rise of Eddie Vedder sound-alikes — slashed the fan base even further. In terms of popularity then, they occupy a strange, contradictory place in music: They’ve been one of the biggest bands in the world for two decades but comparatively little is known about them. Which is why the Cameron Crowe-directed love letter Pearl Jam Twenty (out today on DVD and Blu-ray) is such an important document. A fan himself, Crowe was given access to the band’s entire video vault, footage that documentary film editor Chris Perkel had to comb through, culling a two-hour retrospective from over a thousand hours of raw material.

Perkel, who’s in Panama shooting a documentary about international census workers, took time away from watching the GOP debates (“high comedy,” he says) in order to talk about the process.”

Rick Paulas: How were you approached for the job?

Chris Perkel: I’ve been cutting docs for seven years and worked for a director named Morgan Neville who does a lot of music documentaries. He was approached by Cameron Crowe about the Pearl Jam doc a while ago; Cameron hadn’t really done any documentary work, so Morgan was brought on as a producer. Immediately, I was trying to find an avenue in because, you know, I’m in my mid-30s and Pearl Jam was a band I had a connection to as a teenager. So they gave me the chance to cut a little teaser and that ended up basically being the trailer they use now. They got that I was a fan and I had some understanding of what they were trying to do. So they gave me the opportunity to edit a music video for “The Fixer,” and then gave me the job cutting the feature.

How did you go about cutting the movie?

It’s a weird film. Usually you do the interviews first and build your skeleton on those. But here they didn’t do the interviews until last. So the first thing we did was find performances or clips we thought were particularly cool or interesting or rare. Sometimes it’s pretty subjective, so you hope you have similar taste to what most fans would like.

Did Cameron Crowe tell you exactly how each section of the narrative should go?

Early, Cameron would come in intermittently. We would have conversations about the tone and vibe he was going for, and we were trying to suss out from him what he’s trying to do, but we had a lot of independence early on. You can kind of tell when you’re on the same page and when you’re not, if you cut something and got the vibe he wasn’t responding to it. But for the most part we had a good sense of what it was he was trying to do. He was very articulate about the goal of trying to make this as if fans had raided their vaults, like you were hanging with the band. Cameron works through tone more than any other filmmaker I’ve worked with, so we’re always trying to make sure the stuff captured a particular tone or feel. If you did that, he was generally pretty happy.

Were there any worries that the first half of Pearl Jam’s career would be over-represented in the movie?

There was some talk about it, because it’s hard to avoid. Obviously, the first few years of their career has a lot more drama. I still don’t think we did as good a job as I would’ve liked in dramatizing the second half, but we did the best we could. And, frankly, it’s the stuff people respond to more. You know, those first two albums were so huge, you had to emphasize them to a certain degree. Plus, we just had less material to work with in the latter part of their career. It just worked out that we ended up having the most amount of material on the period of the band that was most interesting anyway.

Did you have a constant incoming supply of footage to go through?

It was evolving, but we had a lot of it up front. The other editor, Kevin [Klauber], had spent a year going through material, syncing footage, breaking down old performances, that kind of stuff. But stuff was still coming in as we were going. Then, you reach a point where you need certain things so you have to hunt for them in order to fill out the story. One of the last things we got was the footage of Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain slow-dancing at the VMAs in 1992. We knew it was out there, but couldn’t get it for months and months.

Were there any pieces you stumbled on that you were shocked you had?

Them writing “Daughter” on the bus. Instantly, we were like, that’s great. There’s some really old footage of Stone and Jeff and Andy Wood from Mother Love Bone that one of their friends, Josh Taft, was just shooting while they were hanging out at a Cult show. And the second show ever. The fact that it was even filmed was ridiculous. It just so happens that Alice in Chains, who they were opening for, were shooting a music video and decided to roll on Pearl Jam as well. They were Mookie Blaylock at the time. There’s some footage of them hanging out with Alice in Chains that’s cool. And the footage from Roskilde, the festival where the kids died, the fact there was footage where you can see the band’s reaction on the Jumbotron was pretty riveting.

Is there anything you wished would have stayed in?

When they shot the “Even Flow” video they had four cameras going and did a whole set that night. They did “Once,” “Why Go?,” “Porch,” and “Baba O’Riley.” In the film, we cut three different “Baba O’Riley” performances together, starting with them rehearsing backstage at Lollapalooza, and then we go to a live performance that’s modern, and then we used the tail end of that show. But there’s amazing footage of them playing these songs in 16 millimeter film that just didn’t make the cut. Oh, and there’s footage from this radio show, “Self-Polluted Radio,” in the mid-90s. We had a great version of “Corduroy” which is a song that everyone loves that didn’t make the film at all. It’s them in this little rehearsal space, very intimate, but it just didn’t have a story to go along with it. That was kind of depressing. There was — I think this is in the DVD extras — a cool little piece I cut of Matt Cameron walking us through how they took a demo he brought in called “Need to Know” and turned it into “The Fixer.” You see the whole evolution of the song. There really isn’t any studio work in the film, because it just didn’t fit.

When dealing with a music documentary, how much does the sound quality of the footage affect what you keep and what you cut?

It does to a degree. The sound quality for their second show ever, we knew we were just taking whatever they had. The value of that footage wasn’t in the quality, it was in the rarity. And from 1995 on, they’ve archived everything impeccably. We worked with their sound guy, John Burton, and mix them a little. But it was really only the early stuff that we had to worry. If the footage was rare and cool, it really didn’t matter.

Did the band have a lot of input in the film?

Honestly, not on anything big. The film was basically a collaboration between Cameron and their manager, at least the genesis of the film was, so people assume this was a more sanitized version of the band. But when we went to Seattle to show them the cut for the first time, it was really tense and nerve-wracking because we had no idea how they were going to react. They’re notoriously private. There’s some dicey stuff in there. Aside from the Roskilde thing, there’s them talking about the change in dynamics from Stone losing power and Ed taking power. The drummers. There’s some tricky stuff. They had notes, usually stuff they found embarrassing, a line that Ed didn’t like from old footage that made him feel goofy. They tried to get rid of a couple things, but we ended up pushing back. Nothing of substance ended up changing. Basically, this film would have never happened if it wasn’t for their relationship with Cameron. They’ve known him since the band’s inception, and they trust him. They really let him make the movie he wanted to make knowing he wasn’t going to do a hatchet job.

It’s definitely a movie by the fans for the fans.

Totally. It’s been interesting seeing the critical response, because I feel the movie accomplishes what it set out to be. There are some critics that don’t believe films should exist if they’re not being more critical. But for the most part I think it’s been well received. It is what it is. People really like it because it’s a movie that clearly gets what people like about the band.

Just the fact that they’ve been around for 20 years shows you’re not going to have insane controversies you dig up.

Right. I really don’t think there’s more there than we talked about. This is a fairly honest depiction of their story. This is a band that was genuinely uncomfortable with how big they got, and took active tangible measures to make themselves smaller, which is something you just don’t see. You see bands paying lip service to wanting to maintain some credibility or wanting to do it for the music, but usually if people stop shining the spotlight on them they get scared and start waving their arms around saying, “Look at me, look at me!” These guys never did that because their priorities was always about the music and the fans. And they evolved into this crazy live act where they’re as much communal ring leaders as they are band members at this point. Really, how many bands from that era are still around? Not many. And how many are still relevant? There’s only a handful. Either you keep making radio hits like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or you’re Pearl Jam. That’s about it.

For being as overexposed during their early period, they’re still kind of an under-talked about band.

Totally. When they retracted from the spotlight, they really retracted from the spotlight. They’ve never re-entered mainstream conversation, except for the fans who are as hardcore as they’ve ever been. But they don’t get any mainstream exposure, and they don’t get the indie, KCRW-style exposure that a Radiohead or somebody else would get. They were really genuinely off the radar. Eddie Vedder lives in Hawaii six months of the year, off the grid. And for people who didn’t grow up around them, I feel like they’re undervalued. For the people I know, the people I went to high school with, the band was really a large part of their teenage years in ways that aren’t appreciated by those who weren’t there. Because they haven’t been talked about to the degree that, say, Kurt Cobain was. And they had a greater emotional connection to Pearl Jam than they did to Nirvana.

When it was the Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana debate during the ’90s, was Nirvana more popular because they weren’t as perceived as mainstream? Because Nirvana was playing acoustic shows on MTV. They were pretty mainstream.

Nirvana was clearly more punk, and it gave them more credibility. I think what the critics that dismissed Pearl Jam don’t recognize, they don’t look past the fact that musically they wasn’t as innovative as Nirvana. Clearly, Nirvana was doing something… well, maybe they were just doing what The Pixies were doing. But there was a greater musical break with what was traditionally popular. Pearl Jam was musically like any rock band in the ’70s, more or less. But thematically, Pearl Jam was very different and reactionary. Thematically, they couldn’t have been more different from the hair metal that was out there, even if sonically they weren’t. And I feel like critics dismissed them because of it. They didn’t appreciate how people were responding to the emotional quality of the music. It was so sincere it almost became a joke.

And you have a retroactive thing happening in the late ’90s with people hating them because of bands like Creed.

That’s also true. His voice became so ubiquitous and omnipresent, all of these bad bands that came around, knocking off the Pearl Jam sound, and people resenting them because Creed became so big. You can’t really blame them for that.

It’s why I hated Rage Against the Machine.

Totally. Because of Limp Bizkit. It’s not Rage’s fault that they created this whole genre.

But as a kid, you’re just looking for an excuse to hate something.

And Scott Stapp gives you many, many reasons to hate something.

Related:Pearl Jam Songs, 1991–1996, In Order.”

Rick Paulas still maintains No Code is their best album, partially because it truly is great and partially because it makes him a bit of a contrarian.