What can a live rock concert teach us about storytelling? Pearl Jam Let’s Play Two: Live at Wrigley Field

Last night I went to the cinema to see Pearl Jam “Let’s Play Two: Live at Wrigley Field“. I went in expecting to see a live Pearl Jam concert. I came out with so much more.

The film weaves together the stories of the baseball team Chicago Cubs, Pearl Jam as a band, the personal story of lead singer Eddie Vedder’s relationship with the Cubs, and individual stories of both Cubs fans and Pearl Jam fans. The way it is knitted together is intricate, using old and new footage of Cubs games, plus Eddie Vedder and the band in the 90s, juxtaposed with the live concerts that took place in 2016. The director, Danny Clinch, and the team who worked on this totally nailed the story arc.

Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series

Photo via Time.com

I did not know (or care) anything about the Chicago Cubs before I saw this film, but, as with all great storytelling, it makes you care. It shows the Cubs progress from a club that has not won anything for over a century, through the qualifying stages (not sure what they call it) and into the world series. And, despite the apparent complexity, it follows a classic five act structure:

  • The opening sets us up with the history of the club and Eddie’s personal relationship with it. He used to go to the games as a child. (Act 1)
  • The club make some bold changes and start winning games more than they have for a (very) long time in its history. (Act 2)
  • The stakes are high and things get tough but the Cubs manage to get into the World Series. (It made me laugh that it’s called the World Series, there are no non US teams). (Act 3)
  • The first games of the Word Series go badly and the Cubs find themselves 3:1 down (I’m not sure what this means in baseball terms but it’s bad, and pretty much no teams come back from it). Things look bleak. All is resting on the next game. They need to win or go home. (Act 4)
  • They win (of course) and go on to win the next games and the World Series for the first time in over a hundred years. (Act 5)

Each act is enhanced by the skilful additions of the history of the band, showing some of their early gigs in Chicago, and adding in personal and moving stories of their fans relationship with the band. And of course, the soundtrack is killer.

The theme of this movie is very much about what it means to be, and have, fans; to belong to something bigger than ourselves. It explores what it means to be devoted.

The Cubs fans are not denigrated in the way sports fans very often are, but explained and uplifted. Clinch is also careful to point out that the people in the band are also very much fans themselves. It shows this most explicitly through Eddie Vedder’s obvious devotion to his home town team, but also through Jeff Ament’s more private honouring of those bass players who came before and inspired him. He has their names inscribed along the neck of his guitar.

The connection between fans and spiritual devotion is obvious in the movie, and must be deliberate. The band’s relationship with their fans is depicted as that of priest with congregation (repeated imagery of Eddie Vedder, arms outstretched, is intense and powerful). My husband (who doesn’t always notice these things) commented as we left, that Vedder is a very spiritual man.

image via The San Diego Union Tribune

Throughout, the music is emotional and spiritual. The band are clearly performing a service. Guitarist Mike McCready is moved to tears on stage, and the ground, Wrigley Field, is referred to as “sacred”. A space where people come together, week after week, their hearts full of hope even though they know the odds are not in their favour. And honestly, it really did feel that powerfully spiritual, both during the footage of the shows and of the baseball games. It made me want to go there. To pilgrimage myself. It made me want to act – in the way that all good storytelling does. It changes you. It changes how you see the world, it changes your relationship with the world.

If you haven’t seen it yet I’d totally recommend it. Even if you aren’t fan of the band or of baseball (and there are those who argue that the Cubs victory was not as against the odds and well-deserved as it seemed here) but that does not detract from this lesson in bringing together characters, setting and plot. If you’re a fan of great storytelling you will love it.

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