Tag Archives: sports documentaries

Lords of the Ring

In the Company of Kings

by George Wolf

Resting somewhere between personal memoir and an episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30, In the Company of Kings is buoyed by undeniable layers of passion and gratitude.

In a brisk 70 minutes, director Steve Read and producer/narrator Robert Douglas reveal the inspiration they have taken from legends of boxing, while putting the spotlight on 8 boxers with very personal stories of struggle, sacrifice and success.

Drawn by the lure of the fight game, Douglas tells of his move from Liverpool to a hardscrabble section of North Philadelphia. Feeling a kinship with those desperate to make it out, Douglas waxes poetic about his love for the men who found their ticket in the ring, with some impressively framed camerawork dotting the gritty landscape.

From legends such as Larry Holmes, Bernard Hopkins and Ernie Shavers to current prospect Tyhler Williams, the film delivers first person accounts of life in the fight game, sparked by intimate details of poverty, racism, hustle, crime and punishment.

Unsurprisingly, Muhammed Ali is the biggest obsession here. But though the filmmakers pay homage to the Greatest through time spent with promoters Don King and Bob Arum and manager Gene Kilroy, these segments only feed the scattershot nature of the film’s focus.

The passion of Read and Douglas is never in doubt, and while that passion sometimes threatens to run the film off the rails, it’s also provides the glue that keeps the film’s heart intact.

By that quick final bell, In the Company of Kings makes clear that it just wants to say ‘thank you’ for the fight, and the courage. More casual sports fans may not be moved, but those with a love of boxing—especially during the 70s and 80s—will take a few hits to the feels.

Double Fault


by George Wolf

Start typing “John McEnroe” in the search bar, and “angry moments” still pops up as one of the top choices.

But why was he so angry? And why are we still drawn to his legendary outbursts?

Answer the questions, jerk!

Showtime’s McEnroe doesn’t shed much insight on either one, but it does serve as a fine celebration of a great champion and a fascinating personality.

Director Barney Douglas interviews McEnroe over the course of one long night in his native New York. John tells his tales in a sit down Q&A, then wanders the streets in the wee hours while the occasional passerby shouts his name.

And what do we learn? That John’s father was a perfectionist who withheld affection, and John is also a perfectionist who rarely let himself enjoy success. Not much is said about John’s relationship with his mother, which leaves a noticeable blank space in the film.

Douglas weaves in the archival footage to great effect, with thrilling tennis sequences and charming callbacks to pop culture of the late 70s and early 80s. There’s also a steady stream of commentators that ranges from Billie Jean King to Keith Richards. It’s all completely entertaining.

And ultimately, John is capable of some honest self-reflection, revealing late in the film how he recognizes his failures as a father and a husband (to Tatum O’Neal, who does not participate, and current wife Patty Smyth, who does), and is committed to being a better man.

But he’s not asking for us to feel sorry for him. And that’s good, because it’s hard to. John admits he had it pretty good growing up, he just wanted a better relationship with the old man. He excelled in a “sport for killers” by exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses and compartmentalizing his frequent anger. Fair enough.

So don’t come to McEnroe looking for a breakthrough psychoanalysis, you cannot be serious! Come to McEnroe to remember why we care about him in the first place.


Gotta Be the Shoes

Meeting Michael

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Normally, you’d expect the MVP of any doc about Michael Jordan – especially one featuring some priceless footage of MJ in his prime – to be the man himself. But in Meeting Michael, he’s upstaged by two kids curious about their Dad’s obsession.

Dad is writer/director Adam Kontras. An Ohio native, Kontras was just a youngster himself when he first idolized Jordan and the mid-80s Chicago Bulls. Now, his L.A. attic is bursting with impressive MJ memorabilia, including two special videotapes with some amazing behind-the-scenes footage.

At just 19 years old, Kontras was pulling the overnight shift at a news/talk radio station in Columbus. Through that gig, he scored a press pass for the Bulls game in Cleveland on Nov. 9th, 1995, and brought a camcorder. With both courtside and locker room access, Kontras captured a truly compelling moment in time.

He released some of the footage five years ago as a short film, drawing superlatives in outlets ranging from online blogs to the Washington Post. For the feature length version, Kontras smartly reframes the entire story as one he’s telling his young son and daughter on the day they’re finally allowed to explore his fan cave.

Though Kontras’s storytelling can flirt with self-congratulations, it’s more often laced with a sheepish wonder at what he pulled off, and some endearing self-deprecating humor aimed at his younger self.

As a director, Kontras (Fastest Delorean in the World, Fastest Delorean Part II) exhibits fine instincts for answering the questions raised by his on-court encounter. For example, footage of Jordan finally answering a merciless heckler sparks a natural curiosity about the garishly dressed front row loudmouth, and Kontras delivers. Bypassing this sidebar wouldn’t have wrecked the film, but giving some time to Eddie “the Heckler” Nahra leads to a richer experience.

It’s these details – some personal, some observational – that keep the film from feeling like a short surrounded by filler.

For Jordan and/or NBA fans, Meeting Michael is a must. But by anchoring the story through the sharing of passions – and by using a touching story about shoes to cement a life lesson – it’s a film with more of a purpose than just liking Mike.

Meeting Michael releases 11/9/20 on Amazon. $4.99 to rent, $7.99 to buy.

Suicide Squeeze

The Spy Behind Home Plate

by George Wolf

Two movies about Moe Berg in the last twelve months? What gives?

And who’s Moe Berg?

Decades before Austin Powers, Morris “Moe” Berg was an international man of mystery. A 15 year veteran of the Major Leagues, Berg was also a Princeton grad, a voracious reader with a photographic memory who clung to his privacy. He was a lawyer, a quiz show champion and an international spy who was once dispatched on a WWII kamikaze mission to assassinate the head of Germany’s nuclear research program.

Astounding stuff from a guy who, according to baseball legend Casey Stengel, “Could speak seven languages, but couldn’t hit in any of them!”

Just last summer, Paul Rudd played Berg in the enjoyable but underseen The Catcher Was a Spy. Now, documentarian Aviva Kempner brings a no-frills, uber-informative approach to uncovering the real Berg with The Spy Behind Home Plate.

Kempner (Rosenwald, The Life and Times of Hank Grennberg) unveils a succession of talking heads joined by wonderful archival stills and videos. Perhaps to mirror her subject, Aviva’s film is short on style, but it’s substance is extra innings worthy.

As unbelievable as Berg’s story is, the dry presentation doesn’t do much to entice the casually interested. But if you find these undertold slices of history fascinating, you’ll be hooked enough to want to seek out Rudd’s version next.

Crashing the Owners Box

Dark Horse

by George Wolf

Man, how great were those NBA finals? Can you believe Cleveland really did it? If you’re still as inspired by their comeback as I am, I’ve got an idea. Let’s get a group of friends together, pool our money, and buy a minor league team!

Crazy as it seems, that plan is not far from the one at the heart of Dark Horse, a captivating documentary that follows a group of racing enthusiasts in the U.K. In the early 2000s, Welsh barmaid Janet Vokes organized some customers and friends from the “working men’s club” where she worked, and the group bred their very own race horse.

Director Louise Osmond is gifted with the very definition of a feel good tale, and she doesn’t squander the chance to present it in stand-up-and-cheer fashion.

As the group of working stiffs crashes the upper-crust owners boxes at the track, their horse, named Dream Alliance, starts winning, and suddenly Janet and her crew are hometown celebrities.

Osmond flexes sharp instincts for keeping cliche to a minimum while finding universal emotion in this underdog journey. What starts as a let’s-see-what-happens gambit becomes a vessel for “common folk” to find meaning in their lives and contentment in their legacies. As members of the owners group (dubbed “the Syndicate”) start to open up about what the entire experience has meant to them, it becomes truly touching.

Mixing charming first-person interviews, dramatic archival footage and nifty re-creations, Osmond keeps the pace engaging, switching gears before any particular segment shows signs of fatigue. Anyone who doesn’t already know how the Dream Alliance saga turns out will find themselves wide-eyed when Jan and her fellow owners are suddenly faced with a tough choice regarding their horse’s health.

Sports could use more owners like the Syndicate, and more docs like Dark Horse.