The Top Five Sports Documentaries

This week sees the release of Alex Gibney’s new documentary on cyclist Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, The Armstrong Lie. To coincide, Padraic Coffey takes a look at five of the best examples of the sports documentary genre.

 

5) Beyond the Mat

He may be most familiar to a younger generation as a beefy film star with a back catalogue of dubious quality (The Scorpion King? Tooth Fairy? G.I. Joe: Retaliation?), but Dwayne Johnson’s first cinematic appearance was in the 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, in his former guise of “The Rock”, delivering several blows to the head of Mick “Mankind” Foley in a room full of wrestling spectators. Directed by lifelong fan of the sport – and frequent Eddie Murphy collaborator – Barry W. Blaustein, Beyond the Mat profiles several wrestlers and their lives offstage. Foley is revealed to be a gentle family man, disheartened at the trauma through which his children are put by his profession, and in Jake “The Snake” Roberts, we see a clear forerunner to the fictional Randy “The Ram” Robinson, portrayed by Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s award-winning film The Wrestler – estranged from his daughter, and relegated from stadiums, at the height of this career, to small-town venues.

 

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4) Dogtown and Z-Boys

Long before Tony Hawk’s status as a household name and the proponent of a seemingly endless array of video games, skateboarding was an underground phenomenon participated in by an array of shift-working misfits in pre-gentrification Santa Monica. Narrated by Sean Penn, himself a veteran of Ocean Park, Dogtown and Z-Boys traces the origin of this movement, its early proponents incorporating the stylistic flourishes of the surfers who frequented Venice Beach. Hawks himself contributes, as does outspoken punk idol Henry Rollins, supported by an outstanding soundtrack featuring the likes of Thin Lizzy, T. Rex and Jimi Hendrix. Also, given the androcentric nature of many sports documentaries, it is refreshing to see the involvement of Stacy Peralta, a skateboarding pioneer, who helmed the feature, and won Best Director (Documentary) at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

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3) Senna

Ron Howard’s Rush may have been one of several films which the Academy Awards failed to recognise in their nominations for 2014, though perhaps voters felt no dramatised feature on Formula One could compete with the intensity or skill of Senna, Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary on the life of the eponymous Brazilian motor-racing champion. Edited down from over 1500 hours of original footage –  consigning moments which would anchor many a documentary to mere end-credit status – the story of Ayrton Senna broke box office records for non-fiction films in the UK, grossing over £350,000 in its opening weekend on a limited number of screens. It might offer a slightly sainted portrayal of Senna – and in the process somewhat demonise his enduring rival Alain Prost – but it remains a work which, like the best sports documentaries, appeals to audiences far outside its subject’s demographics.

 

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2) When We Were Kings

“If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned/Wait’ll I kick Foreman’s behind!” Seconds into When We Were Kings, the tone of the film is encapsulated beautifully by a typically acerbic rhyming couplet from Muhammad Ali, rearing to fight George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Ali had been suspended from boxing between 1967 and 1970 for his refusal to serve in the US Army in Vietnam. In 1974, post-Nixon, less than a year before the fall of Saigon, the charismatic pugilist set out to regain his heavyweight championship title from the younger, more physically dominant Foreman. Combining archival footage with contemporary talking heads from Spike Lee and Norman Mailer, When We Were King is a breathlessly entertaining work, as much about African-Americans embracing their heritage as it is about sport. The music festival organised to coincide with the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ – featuring James Brown and BB King – was the subject of another documentary in 2008, Soul Power.

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1) Hoop Dreams

When Roger Ebert, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, was listing the films he regarded as the best of the 1990s, he placed this 1994 documentary at the top, ahead of Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas or Schindler’s List. Spanning three hours and six years in the lives of its protagonists, Hoop Dreams is the story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black teenagers from inner city Chicago, who are recruited to play basketball at the prestigious St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, Illinois, alma mater to NBA legend Isiah Thomas. Thomas, like Gates and Agee, was once an impoverished Chicagoan youth, and his story is one to which the two hopefuls aspire, though fate stands in their way on a number of occasions. Scandalously overlooked at the 1995 Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature, Hoop Dreams is an epic story not only of Agee and Gates but of urban life in the United States, and the struggles facing its inhabitants on a daily basis.

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