Friday, May 26, 2006

Review - Once in a Lifetime

In the long story of football’s emergence as the world’s number one sport, the game’s struggle to secure a place in the heart of Americans has provided a fascinating subplot. With American football, baseball, basketball and hockey to contend with, football (or soccer) has never really managed to gain a strong foothold in the country; with the average Americans proving unwilling to follow a low-scoring sport played in continuous 45-minute chunks.

It’s a different story these days, of course. While Football hasn’t reached the level of popularity enjoyed by the original American sports, at least it has now found some acceptance, with more youngsters coming into the game and an established league which is growing in stature. The United States national team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, and is now placed as one of the top ten nations in the world by the FIFA rankings. Finally, football seems to have found its place in American life, and many people would credit/blame (depending on your view) one man for bringing the beautiful game to the US - Steve Ross.

Ross was the CEO of Warner Communications. He was a dreamer, a visionary and a huge sports fan; so what could be a greater challenge than bringing an entirely new sport to the American public? Once in a Lifetime is a highly entertaining documentary which charts the astonishing rise, and inevitable collapse, of The New York Cosmos; the dream team Ross put together in his bid to change the face of American sport. It’s a story full of everything you want from a good documentary; money, clashing egos, sex, and scandal. As Rodney Marsh puts it, “The Cosmos were everything that was good, and everything that was bad, about football in America”.

Stylistically, Once in a Lifetime contains striking to similarities to recent documentaries such as Inside Deep Throat and The Kid Stays in the Picture; blending well-chosen footage with snappy editing techniques and a hip soundtrack, to create a film which makes up in entertainment value what it lacks in substance. Filmmakers Paul Crowder and John Dowder are more concerned with spinning a good yarn than giving an in-depth analysis of the Cosmos’ impact on the United States, and in this respect they certainly deliver.

Chief among Once in a Lifetime’s assets is its impressive line-up of interviewees. Steve Ross is no longer with us, but the filmmakers have managed to get almost everyone involved in the Cosmos’ rise and fall to open up on camera. Those who were Warner employees at the time and who helped him build his dream team are gleefully honest about their ignorance of the game, with Raphael de la Sierra admitting that he had no idea how many players a football team should have, and another contributor remarks “I didn’t know what a header was, I thought giving great head was something else entirely”. But Steve Ross knew what he was doing, and he knew that this sport would only leave its mark with the help of the world’s greatest player.

The purchase of Pele is where the story of the New York Cosmos really takes flight. One interviewee predicts that Once in a Lifetime will resemble Rashomon by the end, and with the amount of conflicting reports on show he’s not far wide of the mark. Everyone tries to claim the credit for signing Pele, and nobody can agree on just how much money the Brazilian earned; but what’s beyond dispute is the fact that Pele earned millions during his brief stint in America, and the sport suddenly leaped onto a new level as soon as he set foot in the country.

Pele is sadly absent from the roster of contributors. With his own autobiography and documentary to promote he has declined to take part (although the fact that Crowder and Dowder cheekily announce his decision with the sound of a cash register may indicate the real reason behind his non-appearance), but the range and quality of interviews on offer still provide great value. There are some great anecdotes on offer here, recalling the sheer craziness which surrounded this team. There’s the way the dreadful pitch was spray-painted green in preparation for Pele’s debut; goalkeeper Shep Messing’s attempt to gain exposure for the team by posing nude; and Franz Beckenbauer laughingly recalls Mick Jagger’s surprise appearance in the dressing room. Onetime Tampa Bay Rowdies star Rodney Marsh tells of his first interview in the US, when he was asked if he was “the white Pele” and he replied “no, Pele is the black Rodney Marsh” - a comment which is followed by footage of Marsh being clattered to the ground by the Brazilian in his first match.

Once in a Lifetime even has a pantomime villain on show, in the shape of Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. Chinaglia was a goal machine who joined the Cosmos revolution and immediately began disrupting the dressing room harmony with his criticisms of Pele and egotistical behaviour. “He was Italian, scored a lot of goals, spoke English with a Welsh accent - and that’s about all the good things I can say about him” remarks a former team-mate, and few of those interviewed seem happy with the way Chinaglia became Ross’s confidante and slowly exerted his influence all over the club. This was the beginning of the end for the Cosmos, but Tony Soprano lookalike Chinaglia seems unperturbed as he chuckles through his reminiscence.

Once in a Lifetime is a tad uneven in places, and doesn’t really explore the reasons for the Cosmos’ failure or its influence on American culture in any great depth, but it’s as slick and stylish a documentary as you’re likely to see. Snappy editing is the order of the day as Crowder and Dowder put their footage and interviews together with a consummate ease and professionalism. Matt Dillon narrates in understated fashion, and the funky soundtrack helps keep things lively, with a number of 70’s hits present alongside some footy favourites such as Nessun Dorma. Unfortunately these songs are occasionally a little too literal in relation to the action, and setting a montage of Franz Beckenbauer goals to Ride of the Valkyries was perhaps ill-advised.

The Cosmos eventually imploded as the sport failed to catch the attention of the American public. But the film doesn’t paint Ross as a failure; in fact it could be argued, in this era of Real Madrid’s Galacticos and Chelsea’s Abramovich revolution, that his only mistake was being thirty years ahead of his time. Football is now a thriving pastime in the US and it’s shame Ross didn’t live to see his dream bear fruit, as he died in 1992, two years before America would host the World Cup.

Once in a Lifetime does suffer from the absence of its two biggest players, Pele and Steve Ross, but it still offers enough superb footage, hilarious stories, and toe-tapping music to make it worth a look. With the domestic season over, and the World Cup yet to begin, football fans everywhere will surely be delighted to hear that Once in a Lifetime guarantees a terrific ninety minutes.