I love documentaries because they so often illustrate the simplest and most profound principles of storytelling.
Take the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom as an example.
This movie couldn’t be any clearer what it’s about: back-up singers.
That’s it. That is the simple, distilled essence of its external plot.
The title “20 Feet From Stardom” refers to those singers standing 20 feet away from the star performer, the ones who lend additional vocal power to the overall musical act, and the trials-and-tribulations they navigate in that unique sphere.
From beginning to end, there is not a single moment in 20 Feet From Stardom that does not in some way trace back to the journey taken by back-up singers on their road to a very specialized kind of success.
One of the first movies I show my students at the start of the academic year is The Bicycle Thieves. And I show it to them because it so clearly illustrates the power of a simple external premise: it’s about a man’s search for a bike.
His search for the bike occupies the beginning, middle and ending of the movie; his search for the bike contains all the story’s main dramatic events and turning points; his search for the bike is the vessel for our journey, it is the arc that sustains the entire film.
No matter where we are in The Bicycle Thieves, we’re always so clearly situated in the broader framework of our hero’s quest for that object, all the parts relate back to this whole (this is why, throughout the year, I would constantly ask my students, “What is your search for the bike? What is the main external event sustaining this movie from beginning to end?”).
You see this main tenant of storytelling in films all the time: every moment of Her traces back to Joaquin Phoenix’s growing romantic relationship with a computer operating system; every moment of Dallas Buyers Club relates back to Matthew McConaughey’s quest to procure pharmaceutical drugs available for those in need (first himself, then others); every moment of 12 Years a Slave stems from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s journey as a kidnapped slave.
And so it is with 20 Feet From Stardom – it may not contain a traditional dramatic narrative, but the documentary sustains the beginning, middle and ending of its running time with the simple premise of what it is to be a big time back-up singer – the arc of a back-up singer’s career becomes the story arc of the film. That is the external journey consistently situating us in the broader framework of the film.
But the words “20 Feet From Stardom” don’t just refer to the external subject matter – no, there is a clear internal emotional life embodied by the back-up singers.
These back-up singers represent the unsung heroes of the music world – they’re artists whose purpose is to support someone else’s art, they’re talents whose purpose is to support someone else’s talent, they’re visionaries whose purpose is to support someone else’s vision. These back-up singers have musical ability that often equals (and, in some cases, surpasses) the headlining performer, and yet the very nature of their job is to simply be a seamless part of the act.
The documentary shows how the back-up singers perform a kind of artistic self-sacrifice in what they do: they’re literally “20 Feet From Stardom” in terms of physical stage distance, but they’re also “20 Feet From Stardom” emotionally and spiritually as well, contributing their own glow to the shine of a greater whole.
It’s the same thing with fictional storytelling: a powerful film is rarely “about” the crude mechanics of its external premise; in fact, the external premise is a mere vessel for an underlying dramatic conflict that gives the film its deeper and truer meaning.
Moneyball might externally be about about the use of statistics in professional baseball, but it’s really about Brad Pitt’s deep need to stay in the fickle game that he loves so much, to triumph in a career that has made for a very temperamental mistress; The Lord of the Rings might have an external premise about destroying a talisman of great potential evil, but it’s really about Elijah Wood’s spiritual humility in putting his own welfare aside for the sake of the greater good; Nebraska might externally be about the quest for a non-existing million dollar jackpot, but it’s really a deeper meditation on trying to find some kind of meaning in the twilight of life.
And, like any good story, there is a compelling dramatic bind at the heart of 20 Feet From Stardom: the back-up singers end up paying a potentially steep price for their close proximity to the spotlight.
Yes, they get paid to do what they love; yes, they get to be a part of the great music collective; yes, they get respect within the industry; but they’re also the ones forgotten and left behind by the often self-serving record companies.
The movie shows how it’s very easy to get stuck in a background “rut,” and how those that do undertake the challenge of forging their own stardom end up facing almost insurmountable obstacles (one featured player actually resorted to cleaning people’s houses rather than stay enslaved to Phil Spector’s controlling desire to exploit her talents).
In other words, background singing gets you close to fame and legendary greatness – but it also keeps you just shy of achieving that fame and legendary greatness for yourself.
That is the stuff of drama: the deep, problematic bind that pushes your protagonist so tantalizingly close toward an achievable goal while simultaneously keeping her from ever quite getting there.
It’s why Brad Pitt’s love affair with baseball is so compelling in Moneyball – the more he tries to triumph in the game, the more he loses his entire life to it; the closer that Elijah Wood gets to Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, the greater the force of evil that threatens to undo him; the more that Will Forte attempts to help Bruce Dern find some last semblance of meaning in Nebraska, the more he must confront the profound lack of fulfillment in their family.
It’s the compelling dramatic bind that generates ongoing conflict from the beginning to end of a story.
And, of course, there is the more universal application of what we’re watching: the deeper philosophical struggle that resonates with all humans regardless of whether we will ever step on stage alongside the likes of Mick Jagger or Joe Cocker.
In the final moments of the movie, one commenter speaks about the potential of a great singing voice –
“It’s the gift coming out, but what you do with the gift is you.”
And that is the deeper moral at the end of the story.
20 Feet From Stardom ultimately lets us know that, yes, background singing can be a vessel of deep musical satisfaction; and, yes, it can also create a kind of musical prison; but, at the end of the day, whether you’re an average Joe on the street or singing right next to Sting, you’re the one ultimately responsible for bringing your gift to the world in the way that resonates most deeply with your heart.
In this way, the movie reflects our collective struggle with bringing ourselves fully to the world – the victories we experience, the compromises and the sometimes arduous journey of faith we undertake.
And that kind of distilled thematic clarity is at the very heart of powerful storytelling.