I’m not into sport. I don’t participate in any sports nor do I tend watch it live or on television. But the beauty of the documentaries listed below is that there is no need to be interested in the sports they cover (although having a specific interest in them probably adds even more to one’s appreciation of them).
These films can be enjoyed by aficionados and outsiders alike as all of them are simply well-made pieces of entertainment. Some of the documentaries here are mainly biographical, others focus primarily on specific events or recreations thereof whilst some try to give an overview of a entire sport or just a specific aspect of it. But what they all have in common is that all of them are great viewing, no matter how much you know about the subject going into them. I hope you enjoy the selection.
12. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)
Directed by John Dower and Paul Crowder, with the latter starting out as an editor of various documentaries, including two which are part of this list, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos is the story of the first soccer league to gain widespread popularity in the United States and in particular the New York Cosmos, its most famous team.
Soccer has had a hard time finding an audience in the United States but in 1968 the original North American Soccer League was the first league to find success on a national level. Part of its success was generated by one team: the New York Cosmos, which was the brainchild of football fans Steve Ross, a high-ranking executive at Warner Communications, as well as Ahmet and Nesuki Ertegun, who had founded Atlantic Records together and which had been taken over by Warner.
The start of the team was a true rags to riches story as its beginnings were shabby at best. But once management succeeded in signing various world famous football players, who were past their prime and primarily attracted to the huge paychecks, the New York Cosmos became hot property and its players high rolling stars.
Amongst them none other than Brazilian champion Pelé (still widely considered the greatest football player of all time), German legend Franz Beckenbauer and Dutch master Johann Cruyff. And whilst its fortunes began to wane by the early eighties, the success of the New York Cosmos and the original North American Soccer League laid the foundations for the current leagues still operating in the United States today.
Narrated by Matt Dillon, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos truly shines in its first act, where the very humble beginnings of the league and team are laid out and how they both rose in fame and stature as the first big name players were being signed.
Filled with interviews with these star-players (although Pelé unfortunately declined to participate) and footage from the team’s glory days, the documentary is a highly entertaining look at the beginnings of soccer in the United States and has a great soundtrack to boot. Once in a Lifetime received a nomination for the Best Documentary Screenplay Award from the Writers Guild of America.
11. Pulling John (2009)
Directed by Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Matossian, Pulling John is a fantastic little underseen documentary about arm-wrestling, focusing on the sport’s greatest and longest lasting champion, John Brzenk.
John Brzenk has been the undisputed king of arm-wrestlers for the last twenty-five years, taking out many much bigger opponents and thereby earning himself the nickname of “monster slayer”. As this documentary starts following him, John has passed the age of forty and he is torn on how much longer he can go on. Should he stop now, whilst he’s still on top, or wait until people start defeating him?
During the four years the filmmakers followed John around, two competitors are especially eager to take his title: Travis Bagent, an hungry and overconfident young American, and Alexey Voevoda, a giant Russian hulk of man from a long line of military men. Will John be able to stay on top as he’s going on forty-five or will the young blood finally take his place?
A wonderful look into a subculture unbeknownst to most of us, Pulling John is filled with colorful characters. Most amazing is John Brzenk himself, a kind and unassuming guy who has somehow been able to dominate the sport for a quarter of a century.
It also helps greatly that we are presented with two formidable opponents as Travis Bagent is John’s polar opposite whilst Alexey Voevoda is an almost superhuman Russian muscle machine, who tends to take a far calmer and even philosophical approach. Combining old stock footage, the filmmakers recent footage whilst following the opponents all over the world and even a lovely little animation sequence as Alexey spins a Taoist fable, Pulling John is a small revelation.
10. Beyond The Mat (1999)
Directed by Barry W. Blaustein, a screenwriter of light comedies like the Police Academy sequels and various Eddie Murphy vehicles, and who also happens to be a lifelong wrestling fan, Beyond the Mat is an inside look at the difficult private lives of some of the sport’s stars.
The film basically follows three wrestlers at very different stages of their careers. First there is Mick Foley, who is at the top of his game. Mick is a gentle father and family man and the polar opposite of his stage persona, Mankind, who is a maniac in the ring.
Blaustein primarily focuses on the difficulties his wife and young daughters experience as a result of watching Foley get beat up in the ring time after time. Then there is Terry Funk, a legend of the sport who has reached the age of 53 at the time of filming and seems to be unable to retire, despite the fact that the years of abuse in the ring have taken a heavy toll on his body.
And lastly , there’s Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a man who was at the top of his game in the eighties but has since become the victim of drug abuse and who is now wrestling at sub-par events in small town venues. World Wrestling Federation mogul Vince McMahon, who initially supported the documentary, is also interviewed on various occasions, even though he later tried to block its release when he realised the film focused more on the seedy underbelly of the sport than on its spectacle.
Despite the fact that Blaustein is a lifelong wrestling fan who never necessarily portrays the sport itself in a bad light, Beyond the Mat is a very downbeat and depressing affair as it focuses on the, more often than not, negative effects it has on those who create its spectacle. And despite fully acknowledging that the outcomes are all set and that wrestling is a form of staged entertainment, the film also emphasises how the hard work, action and physical strain are all very real.
Beyond the Mat won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival as well as two separate Best Documentary Awards at the Cinequest Film Festival. It was also nominated for Best Documentary by the Directors Guild of America as well as the Las Vegas Film Critics Society.
9. Pumping Iron (1977)
Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore, Pumping Iron remains the ultimate bodybuilding documentary to this very day, inspiring no less than three sequels of sorts throughout the years. Following the competitors of the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, the filmmakers actually ran out of money and as a result the film wasn’t released until 1977 when Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders appearing in the film helped raise the funds for its completion.
Following various bodybuilders for 100 days leading up to the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, Pumping Iron primarily focuses on a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had won the competition five years straight, and his main rival Lou Ferrigno before he got signed to play the Hulk on television.
The documentary was an enormous success and is even credited to help kick-start the eighties fitness craze when the number of gyms in the United States skyrocketed after its release. The success of the film can clearly be contributed to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence. Whilst he previously had a few small roles in some Hollywood films, the documentary served as a perfect showcase for him and clearly illustrated his already present star quality.
Schwarzenegger comes across as smart, funny, cocky and at the top of his game (he had won five times previously), constantly pushing Lou Ferrigno’s buttons and clearly waging psychological warfare on the newcomer. It’s no surprise that after the 1975 competition Schwarzenegger announced his retirement from bodybuilding and started to focus on his soon to be highly successful acting career.
Pumping Iron was followed up by George Butler’s own sequel Pumping Iron: The Women in 1985, Raw Iron in 2002, which focused on the making of the original documentary and the effects it had on those who participated in it, and 2013’s Generation Iron, which followed a contemporary set of bodybuilders preparing and competing for the Mr. Olympia title. Pumping Iron was awarded Best Documentary at the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards in 1977.
8. Riding Giants (2004)
Directed and narrated by Stacy Peralta, who had burst onto the scene three years earlier when he made Dogtown and Z-Boys about the group of skateboarders he himself grew up with in the seventies, Riding Giants turned its eye on the history of surfing, and in particular big wave surfing, which in itself had an enormous influence of Peralta and skateboarding in general.
Starting with a historical overview of the sport’s Hawaiian beginnings, Riding Giants chronicles some of the major events and figures of big wave surfing.
Peralta starts by focusing on Greg Noll, a pioneer of the sport, who braved the big waves at Waimea Bay in Hawaii in the late fifties and early sixties. He then moves on to Jeff Clark, who claims to have discovered the now infamous and dangerous surf spot called Mavericks in Northern California in the early seventies and surfed it alone for a period of fifteen years.
Lastly, Peralta places the spotlight on to Laird Hamilton, one of the co-inventor of tow-in surfing, where the waves are so big that a jet ski is needed to tow the surfer into the approaching walls of water. This technique made it possible to surf waves which were previously thought of as impossible to master.
Just like he did with Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta delivered another highly entertaining documentary about a subject close to his heart. Whilst Riding Giants lacks the focus of the aforementioned documentary, it is a fantastic overview of big wave surfing culture, filled with classic footage and highly entertaining interviews with some of its most prominent figures.
Although it didn’t make the same splash as his previous effort, Riding Giants is still a great overview of a truly thrilling sport. The film won an award for Best Edited Documentary Film from the Society of American Cinema Editors.
7. Undefeated (2011)
Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Undefeated is an inspiring documentary about a North American High School football team and their coach, determined to turn their fortune around in what has been a less than stellar track record.
The filmmakers follow the Manassas High School football team for one season in 2009. Situated in a poor area of Memphis, the team has had a terrible run in its 100 year history. During this time, they have never been able to win a single play-off game and are consequently perceived by other schools as an easy win for their own progression.
In comes Bill Courtney, a wealthy white businessman and life-long football fan with a true passion for the sport and turning things around for the Manassas team. After six years of volunteering he has become the head coach and the movie focuses on his efforts and three of the team’s players: O.C., one of the team’s best players, Money, a small linesman who through sheer willpower manages to beat bigger players and Chavis, a young man with serious anger management issues who has just returned from a stint in a youth detention center.
What makes Undefeated stand out is not its focus on the sport itself but on some of the people giving it their all. Bill Courtney, a rich white businessman in a poor primarily black team from a community plagued by poverty and crime, seems an unlikely candidate to coach these young men but his passion for the sport and the kids is clearly genuine and touching.
He might be their coach but he takes on a much bigger role as their teacher and is the first to admit that there is much more at stake than just football. As the film progresses, it’s beautiful to see how his hard work pays off as he gets through to some of these kids. Undefeated won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature as well as the Audience Award at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2012.