A new Pearl Jam documentary, “Let’s Play Two! Pearl Jam Live at Wrigley,” tries to be two movies at once. It wants to be a concert film documenting the Seattle quintet’s two-night stand at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 2016, and it also aspires to chronicle the crush Eddie Vedder has on his favorite team.
“It’s like stepping into Oz,” Vedder says of Wrigley, and director Danny Clinch — a trusted accomplice who has made two previous concert films with the band — intermingles the staging of the concert and the Chicago Cubs’ run to the World Series title. In Clinch’s telling, Pearl Jam and the Cubs are part of the same extended family of dedicated fans. Just as the Cubs were the lovable losers who finally won it all, Pearl Jam is portrayed as the once-obscure band that now improbably fills legendary baseball stadiums.
The premise might strike some viewers as more than a little disingenuous. Pearl Jam’s fame was nearly instant after signing with a major label out of the box in the early ‘90s, and some Cubs fans may view Vedder as just another celebrity coattail rider at the team’s victory parade. Pearl Jam diehards who come to the movie expecting to see blow-by-blow coverage of a big musical weekend in the band’s career may be disappointed to find the movie is also a mini-history of the Cubs, brimming with baseball highlights and commentary.
All valid concerns, except one: Vedder is indeed a long-suffering Cubs diehard. As a kid who spent part of his childhood in Evanston, he would hang out in the right field bleachers to watch his favorite player, Jose Cardenal, chase flyballs. In 2013, in the middle of one of the worst Cubs seasons ever, Pearl Jam played Wrigley for the first time and the concert was interrupted by a massive storm. When Pearl Jam finally retook the stage just before midnight to resume the show, Vedder said, “Ernie Banks likes to say, ‘Let’s play two.’ I say, ‘Let’s play until 2 (a.m.).’ “
He then invited Banks onstage from the wings, and the Cubs Hall of Famer gave the show his blessing: “I appreciate all of you coming to my house tonight.”
By the time the band returned to Wrigley last year, Banks had died, but the song he urged Vedder to write — “All the Way” — had become something of a North Side anthem.
“It turned out to be Ernie’s farewell to Wrigley,” Cubs President Theo Epstein says of the 2013 concert.
Pearl Jam is portrayed as a people’s band, and members of its audience and Cubs fans are given as much or more screen time than several band members. Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro, where Pearl Jam played its first Chicago concert in 1991, chimes in with a mixture of Cubs and Pearl Jam lore. Beth Murphy, the wife of Jim Murphy, who founded the Wrigleyville bar Murphy’s Bleachers across from the park 37 years ago, turns into the movie’s most memorable talking head, particularly when she’s reminiscing about playing hide-and-seek with her brother in the nearly-empty Cubs bleachers as a kid.
Vedder “used to come here as a kid and get a hot dog,” she says of her bar. “I play the ukulele now because of him.”
The concert footage adds little to what we already know about Pearl Jam: a reliable heritage act with a boatload of anthems perfect for entertaining a stadium full of lighter-waving revelers on a starlit summer night. The most revelatory footage comes from a low-key band rehearsal on Murphy’s rooftop while L trains roll past. When the quintet detours into “Dirty Work,” an old Steely Dan tune, Stone Gossard praises the chord changes, which brings an incredulous response from Vedder before his bandmates dissolve in laughter. It’s fascinating to watch the band interact in a loose, intimate non-stadium setting, and the film could’ve used more such behind-the-scenes insights into what makes Pearl Jam tick.
Instead, the music becomes a backdrop to the love story of the famous rock singer and his long-suffering team. As the drive to the World Series and the Wrigley concerts intersect in September 2016, Vedder calls it the “legendary culmination of all our devotions.” Yes, the singer really does talk like that — he’s a true believer in the transformative power of rock and of baseball, and he’s a boy again leaping into people’s arms whenever he’s on stage or on the field. When he stumbles upon a box of Wrigley sod outside the ballpark in ‘92, it’s like he’s found his holy grail. As an affirmation of one famous fan’s dedication, “Let’s Play Two” works well enough. As a Pearl Jam documentary, not so much.