Welcome to the Underdog Sports Movie Club. Looking for the best sports films? The Last Dance, All or Nothing, Drive to Survive and Sunderland ‘til I Die, it looks as though this genre is here to stay. In this series, we’re delving through the archives to find the best sports movies and documentaries of all time. We’ll also tell you where to find them, so you can pull the curtains and watch them in peace.
To get you started here’s five hidden gems!
Before The Last Dance there was another epic basketball story. In fact, Hoop Dreams is not just a great sports movie, it’s a genuinely brilliant movie in its own right. Steve James’ film follows two young basketball players as they try to make it as professionals. Shot over the course of 5 years, you feel every emotion. To dedicate this amount of time to one story shows the passion that James has for not only the story but also the individuals within it. What makes it so special is that it’s not just about basketball, it’s about education, class, race and the dissection of the American Dream. It’s epic in length for a feature film but then it’s epic in every sense.
What it can teach us about the sports industry: Behind all the glitz and the glamour (particularly in top flight American sport) there are stories of sacrifice and heartbreak that are as compelling as any of those who go on to make it.
Essential Quote - “People always say to me, ‘when you get to the NBA, don't forget about me.’ Well, I should've said back, "if I don't make it to the NBA, don't you forget about me." William Gates
Where can I watch Hoop Dreams online? Curzon Home Cinema has a special edition to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hoop Dreams, introduced by Steve James.
Living with Lions
The story of the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1997 is a truly compelling one. The first professional Lions tour (rugby went pro in 1995) had everything, including plenty of unprofessional behaviour. The dressing room speeches are inspiring, the players losing their tour to injury are gut-wrenching, every hit is brutal and you can almost feel the hangovers after the nights out. The fact that a documentary team was able to capture everything without it being filtered is what makes this so special. You feel less like a viewer and more like a member of the touring party. It also helps that the Lions won the series in dramatic style.
What it can teach us about the sports industry: The Lions is a truly unique part of rugby that straddles the amateur and professional eras. It means as much to the fans as it does to the players.
Essential Quote: “This is your f**king Everest, boys. Very few ever get a chance in rugby terms to get to the top of Everest. You have the chance today.” Jim Telfer, Lions forwards coach
Where can I watch Living with Lions online? Amazon Prime Video is the easiest place to find it, although you’ll have to buy or rent it as it’s not included in the free Amazon Prime package at the moment.
Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story
There’s no shortage of material when it comes to Lance Armstrong. Books, documentaries, movies and of course that interview with Oprah. Just last month, Marina Zenovich released Lance as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. His story is one of the most compelling stories out there. The problem with Lance is you can’t trust him to tell his story. What makes this documentary particularly special is it really exposes the bullying and power that Armstrong had. In order to keep his doping secret, Armstrong resorted to smear campaigns against anyone who got in the way including his former team masseuse, three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond and the wife of ex-teammate Betsy Andreu. This documentary focuses on the stories of those who were ignored or discredited at the time and is all the more compelling for it. Hearing the accusations without the noisy, often vicious retorts that Armstrong used to defend himself.
What it can teach us about the sports industry: Ultimately you reap what you sow. Everything caught up with Armstrong, when he was seemingly untouchable. As it has with Alberto Salazar in more recent years. The interesting question from a brand’s perspective is will it catch up with them? Nike supported Armstrong for the bulk of his career and funded the Oregon Project that Salazar fronted but will any of these scandals catch up with them?
Essential Quote: “Lance looked at me and said ‘Now you know enough to bring me down.’” Armstrong’s former masseuse Emma O’Reilly
Where can I watch Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story? Having previously been available on Netflix and iPlayer, the best way to watch Stop at Nothing is on Amazon Prime Video. Although not included in the Amazon Prime package, you can watch if you subscribe to Docsville package, which offers a 30 day free trial.
Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job
Known more commonly as ‘Do I Not Like That’ this documentary aired originally in 1994 and is another warts and all story. Hard to imagine now but the FA granted filmmaker Ken McGill access to follow the England team on their disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign. Many remember the picture as one which painted Taylor as a buffoon who barked odd requests from the touchline (‘Can we not knock it?’ ‘We’ve got to go big, we’ve got to go big!’). However, the reality is much deeper than that, it’s a story of the unreasonable pressure placed on the England manager and the hounding of him by the tabloid press. No matter how odd the selections (Andy Sinton, Tony Dorigo and Carlton Palmer all spring to mind) the press wanted blood and went for Taylor relentlessly. Whilst his record in that campaign was really poor, you can’t help but feel empathy for the man and what’s more, he never tried to hide anything from the camera crew. In fact, he even helped smuggle them into the away game against Holland, giving them England tracksuits as a disguise and kit bags to sneak the cameras in.
What it can teach us about the sports industry: That it’s a cruel and lonely place at times. Football in particular can be unforgiving, and the media at the centre of it moreso. The criticism Taylor gets for his job is warranted, the personal sniping from the tabloids was vitriolic.
Essential Quote: “Linesman! Linesman! Linesman!” The moment where Taylor is in so much despair at the referee’s decision not to send off Ronald Koeman that he is reduced to shouting at the touchline official for what seems like 10 minutes.
Where can I watch Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job? YouTube is your best bet. Strangely, for something held in such high regard, the show hasn’t been shown on television since 2008 after ITV bought the rights for it. Given the current boom, it’ll be on Netflix before you know it, if only they’d filmed versions for Capello, Hodgson and McClaren too!
The Four Year Plan
Almost a decade before Sunderland ‘til I Die, filmmaker Matt Hodgson created this behind the scenes look at Queens Park Rangers. They were saved from bankruptcy by a consortium led by eccentric billionaire and former F1 team boss Flavio Briatore. This film really is a hidden gem for a number of reasons. The relationships between the board and the managers are incredible. Early on Briatore refers to caretaker boss Gareth Ainsworth as ‘that prick in the dugout.’ Likewise the bemusement from subsequent manager Paolo Sousa when their best striker Dexter Blackstock was loaned mid-season to Nottingham Forest. Sousa expressed his concerns over the decision during a press conference and was fired shortly after.
What it can teach us about the sports industry: Those at the top don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. The astonishing arrogance and heavy handed running of the club from Briatore is quite amazing, what’s more amazing is they actually achieved their plan of reaching the Premier League in four years. Although some R’s fans would argue that was despite of rather than because of those in charge.
Essential Quote: “I want to know the names of all the people who were booing me, or I sell the club!” Flavio Briatore
Where can I watch The Four Year Plan? The movie is available to stream for free if you’re an Amazon Prime customer.