June 16, 2024


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How To Make Your Own Prestige Sports Documentary, In 7 Easy Steps

Photo credit: Christian Liewig - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christian Liewig – Corbis – Getty Images

From Esquire

Netflix has dropped a trailer for Anelka: Misunderstood, the upcoming Nicolas Anelka documentary. I don’t need to tell you what’s in that trailer. You know what’s in it. You’ve seen so many prestige documentaries about sports stars you know what to expect.

Obviously you can watch it for yourself. But you’re not going to be surprised.

You could’ve guessed all of that, couldn’t you? A doc on a single player is a different beast to, say, The Last Dance or Class Of 92. Simply because more egos are involved, they tend to be a little more even-handed.

There have been some amazing sports documentaries in the last few years – if you’ve not seen the terrifying Free Solo yet, do it now – but there’s a certain raft of sports docs that tend to plod along the same path.

The single-player doc is all about getting inside the head of the subject. Or, at least, giving a crayon-drawn artist’s impression of the inside of their head and hopefully puffing them up enough that their anticipated move into coaching/TV/whey protein shilling gets an extra bump.

They aren’t a million miles from the pop docs Lady Gaga (Five Foot Two), Taylor Swift (Miss Americana), Katy Perry (Part Of Me), Beyoncé (Formation) and others have put together. In fact, they’ve stolen many of the same moves. Some, like Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona, manage to transcend them. Many, many, many others do not.

We meet the athlete doing something mundane in the present day, maybe signing something or driving aimlessly around Los Angeles like Steven Gerrard does in Make Us Dream. He’s a pair of string-backed driving gloves away from Alan Partridge on the Norwich ring road.

Photo credit: MIKE NELSON - Getty Images
Photo credit: MIKE NELSON – Getty Images

This is the section which outlines My Fantastic New Life, Which I Love. It’s tranquil, and comfortable, and probably has children running around in it. But we’re not here to just see a former athlete potter around the shops with their sprogs picking up tungsten-tipped screws. We’re here for some slow-motion archive of them in their pomp: The Phenomenon.

“[The athlete] was… incredible,” a former teammate will say, shaking their head. Their talking head is intercut with a mazy run through sprawling defenders, or a fist-pumping stage win on Alpe d’Huez, or a dunk after dunk after dunk. The supercut of the athlete’s brilliance turns into an audio-visual assault on your own memory. No, the athlete wasn’t a bit patchy and underwhelming on the biggest occasions, actually. The athlete was a genius.

That’ll segue neatly into The Blossoming, in which we get spool back to home video footage of a precocious child mullering everyone at their chosen discipline.

“When I first met [the athlete], [the athlete] was… just a crazy kid,” a coach from their early years will chuckle. After a couple of anecdotes outlining their crazy kid-ness, a drive around their childhood neighbourhood adds a little more poignancy.

We noodle through the major milestones until we get to The Triumph. For Anelka, this is probably going to be France’s World Cup ’98 and Euro 2000 wins, and the big-money move to Real Madrid that followed. There tends to be very little meat to this bit. At some point the athlete will list some of their old teammates by surname, then go, “…wow.” Then, when asked to describe their feelings at the top of the mountain, the mountain they’d been climbing since The Blossoming, they’ll say it was, “an indescribable feeling”.

But then there’s The Difficulty. A demon that was mentioned during The Blossoming will rear its head again, whether it’s an addiction, or another mental health problem, or a catastrophic loss of confidence, or an old injury. This demon will be slain, but not without taking an good opportunity to break for some artfully cinematic abstraction.

There were some absolutely stellar examples in last year’s The Edge, about the England Test cricket team’s ascent to number one in the world rankings. Among other images, Jonathan Trott’s mental isolation was represented by actual Jonathan Trott walking into the middle of a cornfield in his full kit and taking his guard. Anelka: Misunderstood looks like it will use the oddly Old Testament image of Anelka walking through the desert to illustrate his wilderness years, which you have to say is admirably literal.

Photo credit: -
Photo credit: –

Before or after that, though, you’ve got to have The Unpleasantness. It might be a big loss, or a slip at a crucial moment, or a falling out with the fans which, actually, was just a misunderstanding and I never even said them things. Anelka’s will be packed. There’s his part in the 2010 World Cup revolt, his decisive penalty miss in the 2008 Champions League final and a flirtation with anti-semitism in using the quenelle gesture, which would certainly make evoking Moses and his desert wanderings quite a yikes-y decision.

The conclusion the film comes to is that, actually, The Unpleasantness was a good thing. In the end, the player loved it, because it gave them a sense of perspective, and reminded them what was actually important, so all the people who refuse to let The Unpleasantness go – the naysayers, the haters – and keep reminding them of it, and think they’re getting one over on them when they do, they’re really barking up the wrong tree! It doesn’t get to the player at all! They’re laughing, actually! Ha! Ha! It’s just ridiculous! Really, really, really funny! Couldn’t give a toss! But the player did learn a lot, actually.

Finally, we return to My Fantastic New Life, Which I Love. It’s great. The mundane activity they were doing at the start of the film now feels loaded with significance. The future? I’m excited. It’s a journey.

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