With precious little live sport to enjoy lately, it’s no surprise that sports documentaries have been capturing the public imagination. The Last Dance, a Netflix/ESPN co-production about the career and in particular final season of basketball legend Michael Jordan, has been the latest binge-watch (virtual) watercooler fare; while the newest 30 for 30 film Lance has opened up a whole fresh seam of discussion about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Here at Social, documentaries about sport combine two strong interests of ours – indeed, our video department have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients on short films about amateur and professional sportsmen and women. Here are some of our favourite classic sport documentaries, and what we’ve learned about the genre from each one.
The very idea of a documentary giving a look at the personalities behind football was still new and alien back in 1970, when journalist Hugh McIlvanney gave this fascinating look at arguably the game’s first true superstar. The popular perception of footballers’ “champagne lifestyle” arguably owes a lot to this film, and yet it offers a pleasing blend of glamour and mundanity; while the slightly pessimistic tone of its ending is prophetic in hindsight.
(Language warning in the above clip!)
Heaven knows what the English FA were thinking when they agreed to allow Channel Four’s cameras behind-the-scenes for the ill-fated 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign – but the fact that they did meant we were treated to the first truly great fly-on-the-wall football doc. The level of access granted is astonishing for the time, and while manager Graham Taylor was lampooned for years afterwards, in hindsight you feel far more sympathy for his plight.
Some of the best sports films aren’t really about sport at all. That’s certainly the case with Hoop Dreams, Steve James’ three-hour epic filmed over five years in the lives of Chicago-based teenage basketball hopefuls William Gates and Arthur Agee. Yes, it’s ostensibly about basketball – but that’s just the hook for a shattering exploration of racial and socioeconomic issues in early 1990s America.
Yes, we’re counting competitive video gaming as a sport, at least when it results in one of the most entertaining documentaries ever made. But The King of Kong, a tale of rivalry and skulduggery in the competitive Donkey Kong world, raises an interesting question of just how truthful a documentary needs to be. The film leaves out certain factual points in order to make for a more compressed, and ultimately more enjoyable, version of the story – but this attracted anger from many in the gaming community that it portrays. Thematically, however, King of Kong’s underdog story is essentially true, even if the details are clipped in the telling.
It’s possible to divide sports documentaries into before and after Asif Kapadia’s masterpiece, so huge was its impact and influence. Kapadia made the bold decision to tell the story of the legendary F1 driver exclusively using contemporary footage – with no explanatory captions, no omniscient narrator, and a range of interviewees only present in voice-over form. It makes for a captivating, immersive experience that feels halfway towards a scripted biopic as much as a documentary; and as well as Kapadia using similar techniques in his acclaimed follow-ups Amy and Diego Maradona, other filmmakers have followed in his footsteps with this more cinematic approach.
Another film where sport isn’t really the point, albeit in a very different manner to Hoop Dreams. The story of the American Samoa football team attempting to overcome their reputation as the worst footballing nation on Earth and just win a single game, it’s so good that even avowed sports-hater Mark Kermode loved it – because it’s a celebration of humanity as much as it is the game itself. It’s also set to be adapted into a scripted movie next year, directed by Taika Waititi and starring Michael Fassbender.
Sometimes documentaries don’t just entertain or inform an audience – they take an active role in history. Bryan Fogel initially set out to make a film about how easy it would be to cheat at cycling – and ended up exposing the Russian doping scandal that ultimately led to the nation’s ban from the Olympics. It also serves a fascinating exploration of what happens when the documentarian behind the camera effectively becomes part of the story themselves.
The fly-on-the-wall, all-access documentary pioneered in the ‘90s has gained a new lease of life over the past few years. But where Amazon’s mistake with All or Nothing was to present a sanitised, corporate-friendly view of Manchester City’s 2018 title win, Netflix hit pot luck by choosing Sunderland for their series. What should have been the story of a fallen giant climbing back to the top instead became a cringe-filled black comedy as they fell yet further. Call it schadenfreude if you like, but there’s simply far more entertainment value in glorious failure than in relentless success.
It’s easy to dismiss sport as frivolous or unimportant. And maybe to many people it is. But as Amazon’s This is Football series last year showed us, it also means an enormous amount to countless others, in ways we sometimes can’t comprehend. The staggering opening episode of the series, “Redemption”, tells the story of a group of Liverpool fans in Rwanda – and unfolds into a narrative of how football was an enormous healing factor for a fractured nation in the aftermath of the terrible 1990s genocide. It’s a hugely moving piece that ensures you’ll never look at the idea of football fandom the same way again.
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