I'm going to give an early "watch" recommendation to ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series. Consisting of 30 hourlong docs, each directed by a different filmmaker, the series is produced by resident ESPN loudmouth Boston sports fan, Bill Simmons.
So far three episodes have aired: Peter Berg's take on the Wayne Gretzky trade, Barry Levinson's film on the Baltimore Colts marching band, and Mike Tollin's autopsy of the United States Football League.
I'll be honest, Berg's film, Kings Ransom, really didn't grab me. It was good and everything, but I know so little about hockey, that I wasn't aware that Wayne Gretzky had played for a team other than the LA Kings. As a documentary, it wasn't the best film either -- it doesn't do a good job of transcending the story... or really framing the story for those of us who don't follow hockey or remember the trade.
The strength of the next two installments more than makes up from the weakness of the Berg piece. Barry Levinson's The Band That Wouldn't Die swooped in to show the true potential of the series. In 1984 the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis -- quite famously, actually, without warning, in the middle of the night. Levinson turns his camera to the team's marching band, who kept performing in hopes of convincing the NFL to award a new team to Charm City. Of course, any fan of the Cleveland Browns -- or the New York Giants for that matter -- can tell you that they did. The story of the Colts' move and the band are even more interesting that the memory of the Ravens trouncing the Giants in the Super Bowl.
The third film in the series, Mike Tollin's Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, cleared the bar set by Levinson's film. Tollin, who actually worked as a TV producer for the short-lived sprint football league, gave us a documentary that featured The Donald as a villain and The Bandit as a hero. Alright, Burt's not in it that much, but when he is, he shares the screen with a giant stuffed bear. I'd be remiss in not recommending any series that gives us even a frame of Burt and his stuffed bear. Anyhoo, the USFL documentary was fantastic -- great vintage footage of the league, a compelling narrative, a bad guy, cancer, Burt, it has it all.
And coming up in the future? The next installment is directed by none other than Albert Maysles, one of the most respected documentary filmmakers ever. His resume already includes Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter. Tomorrow he adds Muhammad and Larry, following an aged Muhammad Ali as he gets prepared for a 1980 title bout against Larry Holmes.
There are also films by Steve James (who gave us Hoop Dreams -- he's doing a documentary on Allen Iverson), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) is tackling George Steinbrenner, Ice Cube (NWA) is going to take a look at Al Davis moving the Raiders out of LA, John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) is going to take a close look at Marion Jones. They're even going to let Steve Nash direct a film -- I expect it to score a lot of points and lose in the playoffs.
Give "30 for 30" a chance. It airs at 8pm on Tuesday nights on ESPN, and I'm sure that the other ESPN channels rerun it incessantly. Because that's what ESPN does.