Top 5 Sports Documentaries
James Thomas’ Top 5 sports documentaries
With the Olympics now over, and the country still sport crazy, now is the perfect time to get stuck in to some fantastic sport documentaries. Here are my top five.
5. Once In A Lifetime
It may be sacrilege to say that the best film about football isn’t even about football, but about soccer. But that is the case, as shown by Paul Crowder and John Dower’s documentary about the 1970’s New York Cosmos. The now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) was ploughing dollars into bringing stars from Europe and South America to the States, but it was the Cosmos who shone brightest, singing players like Franz Beckenbauer and Pele. Showing how for one period in time soccer grasped at the hearts and minds of America and how the Cosmos fantasy team became the hottest ticket in town. An interview with Pele would have elevated the film somewhat, but his absence doesn’t distract too much from one of the more elaborate football stories of the recent times.
You don’t have to know much about the life of Ayrton Senna, or F1 in general to find yourself captivated by the story of one of motorsports most charismatic champions. Told entirely with archive footage and no talking heads, Asif Kapadia has created a compelling narrative, highlighting the gaps and spilt second decisions that separate the challengers from the champions. Adored in his homeland of Brazil, where he was a symbol of hope and joy when there was little of either, Senna proves himself to be a winner in every sense of the word. And even if you are aware of the tragic end to the story, it still won’t prepare you for the emotional impact of the final scenes.
Murderball, the title coming from the original name of quadriplegic rugby, is simply one of the most fierce sports films about one of the most brutal sports you’re likely to watch. Focusing on the US team, as they prepare to defend their Olympic gold in Athens, the horrific stories of injury and pain is quite heartbreaking. But these are not men asking for our sympathy, and their determination to succeed in their sports is inspirational. Like all good sports film, there is rivalry at its heart, with the US and Canadian teams both going for gold, a situation made more intense by an angered former US gold medal winner becoming the Canadian coach. Tough, touching and funny, and with the London Paralympics coming up, now is a great time to seek it out.
2. When We Were Kings
The story of Muhammad Ali is one of the sporting stories of the 20th Century. This film documents his most famous fight, and the historical and political context that it took place in, as in deep in the heart of Zaire, Ali fought a fighter they said he could not beat, George Foreman. And even now, nearly forty years later, the actual fight is still a wonder to behold. Featuring a collection of excellent music from the likes of James Brown and BB King, talking heads that clearly know what they are talking about, and a rather beautiful closing montage of photographs and videos of Ali knockouts, this is a film worthy of not just one of the greatest sportsman ever, but one of the most influential cultural figures of all time.
1. Hoop Dreams
The idea that sports films are not about the sports at all, but rather about the people and personalities that play them, is one of Hollywood’s truest clichés. And nowhere is that cliché most apparent than in Steve James’ epic documentary, Hoop Dreams. Originally planned as a 30 minute TV show, James filmed more than 250 hours worth of footage across four years, and edited it into a near three hour film, that isn’t just a look at the hopes and dreams of two aspiring teenage basketball stars, but a look at America in the 90’s. If David Simon ever made a sport documentary, it would look a lot like Hoop Dreams, as it has the broad canvas and the small personal stories that mirror a city that Simon specialises in with the likes of The Wire and Treme. The two boys from Chicago’s housing projects are spotted by the scouts of uptown school, but have to battle expectations, injury, academic work, poverty, drugs, violence and fatherhood as they fight for the chance to get a college scholarship, and make it to the NBA. America’s school system is put under scrutiny, as does the way young men can be taken advantage by systems that can profit from their success, but don’t care if they fail. Not just the greatest sport documentary of all time, Hoop Dreams is one of the most important films, in any genre, of the 1990’s.