I went to see Anvil: The Story of Anvil yesterday. This documentary's being called the greatest rock movie of the year -- or ever -- depending on who you're reading. I'm not quite sure that's the case, but it is good. And it did get me thinking.
There was a time way back when most documentaries were structured more like an essay than a story. What does this mean? An essay format approaches facets and aspects of the story, takes into account the different arguments, and makes a case for seeing an issue in a certain way. An essay format documentary on, say, Einstein, might look at his early life, then his first successes and troubles, political problems and exile, rivalries with other physicists, and how he came upon relativity, then follow up with what this all means.
Story-format documentaries work more like feature films. The audience engages a story because they want to see how it turns out. The main character must embody a strong question and engage the audience. Put simply, there must be both a 'why' and a 'how' for the audience to care about the protagonist. We stay tuned because we want to see how things turn out for the main character. A story-format doc (usually) engages on a more emotional level than an essay-format doc.
Anvil has this all in spades. Back in the early 1980's, at the height of heavy metal, Anvil seemed destined to ride the wave to the top. They headlined with The Scorpions, Bon Jovi, and White Snake. They knew everybody, and everybody knew them. Now the lead singer works for a school lunch delivery service. But he still dreams of making it and the band is still together. They'd make a great subject for a feature script.
The documentary is structured very carefully to fit a standard three-act structure. You meet the band at the height of their fame. Talking heads like Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Slash of Guns N Roses wonder why they never made it. Twisted Sister remembers back when Anvil blew them off stage. Then you find the lead singer talking about when the schools on his delivery route get meatballs and when they get shepherd's pie. Depressing, huh? Yes and no -- they still play regularly, and a chance for a European tour falls in their laps.
The hero's journey rolls on before us. They commit to the journey, find no way back, and encounter innumerable and unbearable sufferings along the way. But they manage to capture an amulet or two, and when they return home you sense it's just in time for the third act to begin. I won't spoil it for you because I think you should see the movie.
I recently consulted on a documentary about a musician. It's difficult. Unlike Lips, the protagonist in Anvil, this musician seemed bent on undermining any possible story. He was reticent, difficult, and at times adversarial with the filmmaker. After all, you can't have a hero's journey without going through innumerable humiliations and defeats. No one actually wants that -- especially with a documentary filmmaker following you around. It wasn't feasible or desirable to move to an essay format, so we wrestled with how to make the story compelling without changing it.
As I watched Anvil, the screen was littered with tiny moments that show the restructuring. Band members wearing T-shirts from the as-yet-unrevealed low point. The return home finds everybody in surprisingly similar garb and mood to the first scene in the house.
Now, it's effective to bring a main character back to a familiar setting from early on in the movie. It allows the audience to gauge dramatic distance -- how far the main character has traveled since we met him. In a feature film (that is fiction), the writer has the ability to manipulate elements however he or she wants. It's part of being a good writer. Documentary filmmakers aren't so lucky. You don't know where you'll end up when you start. You don't know when someone will do something memorable. And you certainly don't know when that memorable thing will actually fit the narrative you've constructed. So you move material around. You stay true to the spirit. Or at least you try.
It's a weird compromise. You want to please the audience but you also want to stay true. I'm not sure if those two can ever sit together peaceably.
I wonder if there's not a better structure for documentaries. Something freer. Something that uses surprise to capture an audience rather than adherence to a mythic structure. Imagine what reality TV could actually do without all the cliches and structural points that the producers seem to think we need. It feels like there's a wealth of story hiding there, buried just under our expectations.