Gilbey on Film: 10 unorthodox sports movies

An antidote to Olympic fever.

This week brings two films which remind us that sports movies are never really about sport. Salute focuses on the Black Power salute given on the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics by the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but it also unpicks the complicity of their fellow medal-winner, the white Australian Peter Norman, in the act. Race, class, prejudice and privilege in a different context are also touched on in Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who competed at the 1924 Olympics; the picture returns to cinemas now, 31 years after its original release. Here are some thoughts on it from Lindsay Anderson, who has a few succulent moments on screen opposite John Gielgud. In a letter to Malcolm McDowell in April 1981, Anderson wrote of the film’s premiere:

I’ve no idea what I’m like in the picture. When my first sequence arrived, I closed my eyes. Later I peeked through half-closed lids. All I can say is, I didn’t seem to be much worse than Gielgud. (I don’t know what he thought. He dashed for the exit at the end of the picture, having told us…that he had booked a bacon-and-egg supper for himself at the Garrick.) The picture itself is lush, over-photographed for my taste - [the cinematographer] David Watkin in his usual pictorial form – and directed with that concentration on image that is the mark of directors who’ve been formed in directing commercials. Hugh [Hudson, the director] is a really nice chap: but not much sense of narrative or performance.

I wonder what Anderson would have made of the ten films I offer up for your consideration in the category of The Unorthodox Sports Movie. Consider the list a slight antidote to Olympic fever, reining in the hyperbole without swearing off sporting activity entirely. Sports movie convention, you see, demands traditionally that nothing less than the future of civilisation must appear to hinge on the outcome of the competition in the final reel. Whether it’s a horse race in Seabiscuit, a boxing match in Rocky or a martial arts contest in The Karate Kid, the entire world should be seen to be punching the air and weeping tears of unadulterated joy. The films below offer a slight corrective to that bombast.

Hoop Dreams

Hardly obscure, this painstaking (and often painful) documentary following two young African-American basketball hopefuls remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time. In this clip, the Tigger-like Arthur Agee visits St Joseph school after being spotted by a talent scout, and ponders an education alongside “different kids, different races.”

Ping Pong

A brilliantly lively Japanese comic-book adaptation with a blissfully batty visual style.

All the Marbles  (also known as The California Dolls)

Peter Falk as a female wrestling manager (he’s not female: the wrestlers are).

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

Alan Clarke’s snooker-vampire-musical. Only in 1980s Britain, eh? Here  is Alun Armstrong, as a Ray Reardon-a-like, performing his big number “I Bite Back” (“I may appear bizarre/ With my predatory features …”) And here is some snooker action with Phil Daniels.

Rudo y Cursi

A witty, overlooked (though not by your trusty NS) soccer comedy starring cinema’s conjoined Mexicans, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

Rollerball

AKA Whip It! for men.

Animalympics

Sassy and soppy in equal measures, this 1980 animated comedy imagines an Olympic Games populated by animals. Here is a scene set to one of Graham (10CC) Gouldman’s songs from the film. You think it’s corny? By the time you’ve endured UK television’s Olympic montages accompanied by Coldplay or Take That, Gouldman’s songs will resemble the Dead Kennedys.

Diggstown (released in the UK as Midnight Sting)

Yes, it’s boxing. But it makes Rocky look like a game of pat-a-cake. 

Breaking Away

A funny, acutely-observed coming-of-age film … on bikes. And here is one of its stars, Daniel Stern, talking now about the movie’s appeal.

The King of Kong

I hear there is a fictional version of this battle-of-the-arcade-champions documentary in the works. Please, let it not be so: this incarnation of the story is note-perfect. And don’t listen to those who tell you that Donkey Kong isn’t a sport: they’ll be saying next that Temple Run doesn’t count as exercise.

"Chariots of Fire" and "Salute" are released 13 July

A still from the 2002 remake of Rollerball (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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