Twenty years ago, director Cameron Crowe decided to follow his much-loved debut, 1989’s Say Anything, with a romantic comedy set in the world of the Seattle music scene.
That movie was Singles (1992), and when Warner Bros. got first sight of it, just before the Seattle music scene exploded, they determined to shelve it. Then grunge went mainstream, and many of the bands featured in the movie, including Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, would go on to multiplatinum superstardom.
The biggest of these bands was Pearl Jam, the members of which were cast as Matt Dillon’s bandmates in the fictional Citizen Dick. The studio reconsidered, and then planned to release the movie to capitalize on the current hottest music trend with their “grunge movie.”
But not before they would ask Crowe to call in a favor from Pearl Jam. This would prove near disastrous, as Crowe — whose love letter to the band, the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, opens Sept. 20 and includes the now infamous MTV footage — remembers…
“When Harry Met Sally… was the big hit as we were filming, I think. I think the studio saw Singles and thought, ‘What is this guy with the dreads, shaking?’ That’s Layne [Staley], man! From Alice in Chains! ‘Uh, where’s Billy Crystal? C’mon man, give us the thing we know.’ And it just kind of solidified into positions. They didn’t understand the movie at Warner Bros. They weren’t that happy they made it. We were editing it and trying to just finish it and fighting to finish it and no one wanted to put it out.
And then, ironically, Nirvana broke. Actually, Alice in Chains broke. Then Nirvana broke. Then the kind of zeitgeist story started to become Seattle. And then Pearl Jam broke and the studio was like, ‘Okay. Well, all right, the guy that shakes his head with the dreads, we like him now. But we need MTV to do a promotional party so we can kick the movie off to let people know they can see all this crazy popular Seattle music.’
I had to go on Lollapalooza and beg the guys in Pearl Jam to play the party. I was Willy Loman on the Lollapalooza tour. You know, it wasn’t fun and I never like asking people a favor. I just don’t. I’d rather do a million favors than ask for one. But here I was asking them on their day off to play the show. They said yes to help me get the movie released. But, this was their one day off.
Eddie [Vedder] had some surfer buddies around and I think they needed to blow off some steam. They showed up to play this live MTV premiere party-concert drunk. Like, really drunk. [Laughs] And I’d never seen Eddie drunk. I mean, I’d never seen him drink! But now all of a sudden, he’s got these surfer buddies who are pouring beer down a funnel and he’s drinking beer from a funnel and it’s like, Whoa! This is like Animal House, man. The idea was, this was going to be an acoustic performance. Like Unplugged.
But we got the word shortly after the funnels started appearing that Pearl Jam’s changed their minds. It’s going to be a punk rock set. And from there, everything began to unravel in classic punk rock style. Eddie slipping all over the stage, saying the stage is like Hollywood slick. And guys are looking at me like, ‘Yeah, we loved releasing this movie. It was a ball of laughs before and now it’s really fun. My kids just heard ‘f—‘ five times straight from your man Vedder.’ It was ugly, we barely had anything to cut together. I think it showed once.
Anyway, it was a disaster and I never brought it up with the band until years and years later when we had cameras and we were filming for the movie. Eddie looks at me like, ‘This is the worst possible question you could be asking. You wait 20 years to bring up this horrific event and now there’s a camera with you when you do? Thanks a lot.’ But then he answers the question and he’s pretty great. Stone [Gossard] had the great answer too because Stone said, ‘That was the birth of ‘No.’ So we got to use it as kind of a buoy in the water of the Pearl Jam adventure. But it was reliving this really terrible event on-camera with them.”
Pick up this week’s issue with Brad Pitt on the cover to read more from Cameron Crowe on Pearl Jam Twenty.
More on EW.com:
‘Say Anything’ Turns 20
On the scene at Yankee Stadium: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax crank and shred
Toronto round-up: ‘Moneyball’ scores, while Fassbender’s ‘Shame’ and Blunt’s ‘Sister’ find distributors