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June 02, 2006

Heady energy and unintentional humour in telling the story of the New York Cosmos: Once in a Lifetime - Paul Crowder & John Dower

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Once in a Lifetime
Directed by Paul Crowder & John Dower
certificate 15, 2006

The Seventies! Football! Funny haircuts! Moustaches! The stuff of a thousand irritating specials on Sky One and BBC 2, as easy laughs are shamelessly exploited. Since the explosion in media coverage of soccer at the more serious end of the spectrum since the success of Fever Pitch, the larky, weren't-the-haircuts-ridiculous nostalgia-based coverage has also exploded.

Add to this the often irritating, reflexive belief amongst soccer folk that North America's failure to replace its own "football" with the more international brand is some kind of moral fault in America (as opposed to a manifestation of the many-splendoured nature of human activities and isn't it odd that those most passionate about soccer's colonisation of America are often most resistant to other forms of globalisation) and you do not have a promising combination.

Once in A Lifetime is the story of the New York Cosmos, the North American Soccer League (NASL) team of the late 1970s and early 1980s that began as a bunch of amateurs kicking around and ended up playing before capacity crowds in Giants' Stadium before crowds of tens of thousands. The interest of Steve Ross of Warner Communications changed all that, and money, in the eternal manner, transformed things. The Cosmos at their height featured Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and various other luminaries of Seventies football. The documentary neglects to mention that these players were all past their considerable peak, and signing them was not the overwhelming coup it may have seemed.

A few seasons of selling out Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey ensued. Finally the NASL got what they wanted from corporate America live coverage on one of the major networks. A talking head from ABC explained that he wanted to create a highlights package, which would gradually seduce Middle America into the charms of the game. However, he was overruled, and ABC plumped for live, full coverage of an entire game. Given soccer's tendency towards long spells of dullness, this was a disastrous decision. Even though NASL had taken steps to make soccer more palatable to American tastes, such as a special form of shootout to avoid draws, the coverage failed to make an impact. Within a few years, major soccer in America seemed dead.

Once In A Lifetime is a restless documentary that becomes, quickly enough, rather headache inducing. Nothing is allowed just to be portrayed, but every talking head is seen in multiple split-screen shots, every development is accompanied by a new pumping Seventies number. Everything seems to happen several times for instance,

soccer seemed to explode on the American consciousness
when Pele was signed by the Cosmos and later again, seemingly as a result of the famous New York blackout of 1977.

Similarly, I was left very confused by the story of how the Cosmos came to be Warner Communications pet project. It was through the enthusiasm of Steve Ross and of the Turkish-born Ertegun brothers who owned Atlantic Records that Warner were persuaded to invest their money in the Cosmos. But what actually happened? Amidst the barrage of disco and funk and the constant changes of camera angle, it was difficult to tell. The audience never gets to relax or to take stock of all that is happening. Is this what the Seventies were like? Obviously everyone was on drugs. All the time.

There are enough irritating filmic tics on display to make one query a diagnosis of a kind of celluloid Tourette's Syndrome. For instance, the talking heads are arbitrarily speeded up for no good reason every so often. And sometimes the talking heads are sitting beside an empty chair, or a chair bearing something emblematic of their role. For instance, the Cosmos' Bugs Bunny mascot sits beside a chair laden with carrots. This, of course, is entirely consistent with a trend in modern documentary making, and it is perhaps more forgivable in Once In A Lifetime which deals with a basically trivial series of events. Certainly other documentary film makers use these techniques to ram home tendentious arguments without giving pause for breath or critical thought.

The two documentaries that Once in a Lifetime was trying to be like most seemed to be the Robert Evans biographical sketch The Kid Stays in the Picture and the surfing movie Riding Giants. It seemed to be trying to blend the glitzy, glamorous backdrop of the first with the frenetic style and overburdened soundtrack of the second. But the glamour of Once in a Lifetime is a glamour we largely hear about. We are told of the debauchery supposedly associated with the Cosmos on tour, but lacking any footage or any especially juicy anecdotes, we have to take it on trust.

And while Riding Giants had a core of genuinely awesome surfing footage (for, whatever one thinks of the surfing subculture, one has to admit that at times the ability of the highest level surfers to ride absurdly difficult waves is incredible), the makers of Once in A Lifetime have made a disastrous decision. One of the inherent difficulties in making a fictional sports movie is recreating the games convincingly. Audiences are used to seeing Michael Jordan or Ronaldinho doing their thing in full view of the cameras, without multiple cuts or changes of camera angle (during the actual move itself in the replays, anything goes). In films, even with the magic of CGI, making actors carry out similarly astonishing physical feats is very difficult. The documentarians do not have this to cope with.

And yet, despite having access, one presumes, to hours of footage of Pele, Beckenbauer and the rest, the filmmakers insist on showing what soccer action there is from a variety of pseudo-dramatic angles that barely allow one to see what is actually going on. The effect is similar to the irritating, self-indulgent exercises in a similar vein of BBC and ITV in putting together previews of games. Even more so than usual, soccer becomes a tale filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing, divorced from its immediate context and from any mere literal documentary "this is what happened" function. All for the sake of the ego of television producers.

And yet, the personalities do manage to emerge from the mess of camera angles. Giorgio Chinaglia, the Italian forward signed from Lazio, emerges as the villain of the piece. Daring to criticise Pele, insinuating himself with Steve Ross, and developing an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano, Chinaglia is unrepentant about the negative impression everyone else seemed to have of him. One found a slight admiration for him, even though he was quite obviously a piece of work.

Shep Messing, the original Cosmos goalkeeper from their time as a glorified Sunday league team who surprisingly seemed to survive the advent of Pele, Beckenbauer et al, is another memorable figure, not least because he appeared as a full frontal nude centrefold in the women's magazine Viva at a time when the Cosmos needed all the publicity they could. Shep, who has the physiogomy of an ageing porn star, provides continuity from the early days to the celebrity madness and beyond and has now ascended to the dizzy heights of being a football agent and inductee of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

No doubt with the World Cup looming in Germany or the "Welt-Meister" as the Germans call it the tabloids and other papers will whip up the usual idiotic "two World Wars and one World Cup" frenzy. Aside from its inherent stupidity and insensitivity (aside from German sensibilities, think of how those who lost relatives in either World War feel about lumping a game of football in with those two massive conflicts) we will see the usual stereotyping of Germans as cold, efficient, remorseless functionaries etc. Franz Beckenbauer, for instance, is always portrayed as the aloof, calm Kaiser. In reality Beckenbauer's odd attempts at homespun humour place him closer in Germany to the role Kevin Keegan plays today in the English media. And in Once in a Lifetime he is a genial, kindly figure, evidently decent and unlike most of the other former footballers featured seemingly unconcerned with self-justification or doing down his enemies.

Once in a Lifetime exemplifies a trend in documentaries the reluctance to let the viewer judge for himself, the insistence on constant visual stimulation that quickly outstays its welcome. It does have a certain heady energy and, given the amount of unintentional humour (mainly derived from its bombast and inexplicable production decisions), a certain charm.

And yes, the haircuts were ridiculous.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer.

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