The PBS Arts Fall Festival and American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty

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By Frank Barron

Pearl Jam.

The great thing about PBS is that it presents the greatest programming that covers the spectrum of the arts. Maybe you’d never think of going to an opera, but you might reconsider after you’ve seen the grandness of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (airing Oct. 14). It’s a fun show and a fine introduction to the world of opera, and it is part of the first PBS Arts Fall Festival, which has a slate of films on cultural aspects from seven American cities. HMS Pinafore is coming from Minnesota’s Twin Cities Public Television, which has established one of the strongest arts and cultural legacies for future generations.

PBS’ president and CEO Paula Kerger unveiled the slate of new programs during the summer press tour. Airing every Friday night, the festival series is an unprecedented move to give a national audience a sampling of artistic stories from around the country. With topics ranging from the post-grunge Seattle rock scene, to the craftspeople of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Miami’s Haitian and Cuban artists, the films paint a vibrant picture of contemporary American arts and culture for all to enjoy.

Kerger said, “With our PBS Arts Fall Festival featuring performances from communities coast to coast, we felt it made perfect sense to dig deeper and show the cultural infrastructure and artistic innovations those areas have inspired. As part of our ongoing commitment to give Americans a front-row seat to the best performing arts, we’re showcasing an exciting spectrum of what is happening at the community level throughout the country.”

Frank Barron and filmmaker Cameron Crowe.

You may not think the topic of the post-grunge Seattle rock scene fits into the PBS “brand,” but you would be wrong. Presented by the acclaimed American Masters series is Pearl Jam Twenty (airing Oct. 21). Award-winning director Cameron Crowe has created the definitive portrait of the seminal band in honor of Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary.

I’ve personally known Cameron?since he started as a music journalist when he was a teenager. I used to get him concert tickets to see the rock bands he would write about. Those days were to become the basis of his hit movie Almost Famous. Later he became an acclaimed writer-director-producer, but he still has the heart of a rocker. That made him the perfect filmmaker to pay homage to Pearl Jam, a group he has followed from their humble beginnings. His documentary features Footsteps from the original Momma-Son demo tape Eddie Vedder sent Stone Gossard as his audition for the band.

Chatting away like two old friends catching up, Cameron proudly told me that the film is “part concert, part insider, celebrating the freedom that has allowed Pearl Jam to make music for two decades without losing sight of what matters to them— their fans and their music. I’d love people to see that there is no rule book for what Pearl Jam did, and here they are, still together. The film ends up being a movie not about some tragic failure, but about an odd and unique kind of success.”

American Masters series creator and executive producer Susan Lacy points out that “Cameron was among the band’s inner circle when they formed the band, and has maintained a close relationship with them.” Putting the Pearl Jam Twenty show together took three years to assemble, “but it was a labor of love,” Cameron reported. So even if you’ve never been a Pearl Jam fan, I urge you to tune in on Oct. 21, to see something special to surprise the rock star that’s hiding within you.

For ballerinas who want to go wild, there’s Great Performances: Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine & Tharp (airing Oct. 28). It shows how Haitian and Cuban artists are creating new venues in their Miami neighborhoods, connecting community members to their traditions and cultural roots while drawing audiences from other neighborhoods and beyond. And this program puts the spotlight on an ensemble that embraces diversity in dance.

Also upcoming on the PBS Arts schedule is a focus on the talents from the Blue Ridge Mountains with Give Me The Banjo (airing Nov. 4); the creativity from Chicago with American Masters: Bill T. Jones: A Good Man (airing Nov. 11); from Cleveland there’s Women Who Rock (airing Nov. 18); and wrapping up the festival is a gift from San Francisco, Great Performances: The Little Mermaid from the San Francisco Ballet (airing Dec. 16). All the Friday-night shows recognize the power of the arts to enlighten and inspire individuals and even entire communities. Tune in.

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