Sunderland ‘Til I Die

Nipping at the heels of First Team: Juventus is another Netflix footy doc, although this one could be called The Last Team (I Would Play For). Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a riveting account of the once-storied franchise’s spectacular red-card tumble from grace.

The contrast between the clubs couldn’t be any more, um, black and white. Juventus (aka, “The Old Lady”, and “the Zebras”) were sent to a lower league as a punishment for their involvement in Italy’s notorious match-fixing scandal. Some called it a slap on the wrist, the team kept much of its talent, and was soon back destroying opponents in the Serie A and abroad. Sunderland, on the other hand, stunk like days-old herring.

Juve boasts a who’s who of talent, like Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s richest athletes. Sunderland’s got a who’s that? of talent. The Italian giant’s practice facilities are the Ritz-Carlton, Sunderland’s look more like a Holiday Inn.

A once proud side, Sunderland was demoted from the Premier League, where it battled the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, global billion-dollar behemoths who sign players with blank checks and whose jerseys can be spotted from Rio to Tokyo. Sunderland were punted down to League One, where the casual fan wouldn’t recognize many, if any, of their opponents — Scunthorpe United, Wycombe Wanderers, Southend United — some of whom have home grounds that seat a whopping 30,000 (!) fewer spectators (Sunderland play in the state-of-the-art 50k capacity Stadium of Light. Scunthorpe’s Glanford Park seats 9,000).

Sunderland ‘Til I Die chronicles the team’s struggle to keep a permanent manager (the team changes them like a hotel’s bed-sheets), acquire players during the transfer window, and develop talent from its youth ranks.

This becomes an increasing struggle, as the billionaire owner at the time didn’t feel like ponying up for top-tier talent. Drafting from within sometimes works for competent, thrifty, organizations, but more often than not players aren’t pitch-ready and are brought along too soon and flame out, or are poached by bigger fish once they show promise.

As Sunderland swim in increasingly smaller ponds, you get to see how the organization is squeezed. Their players speak out publicly, they lose their top striker, and become, according to one local cabbie, a “poisoned chalice.”

It’s a reminder to those of us weaned on North American sports, especially from this vantage point, to appreciate the foreboding specter of relegation. If there were lower leagues to be demoted to, the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs of old would’ve been sent there. After all, this is a city with a rich tradition of stink.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die is the warts and all sports club doc that First Team: Juventus should’ve been.

It’s heartwarming, engrossing, and a reminder of the cultural continuity-affirming importance of professional sport.

***1/2 (out of 5)

Bohemian Rhapsody

When it comes to their approach to Bohemian Rhapsody, there’s a wack of critics who’d probably confuse beach reading with Tolstoy, if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed.

The world’s most fan-friendly band deserves a fan-friendly movie, and Bohemian Rhapsody is just that. Critics, who seem to delighting in the phrase, “is this the real thing, or is this just fantasy,” as if they’ve discovered a new element of the periodic table, are missing the mark: needlessly nitpicking timelines, bellyaching about whether the movie accurately depicts Freddie’s sexuality or descent into debauchery (as if that, rather than insights into the creative process, is something more interesting to an audience expecting to see the story of Queen) and ruminating about the use of CG for crowd scenes (we’ve got news for you: wrangling 10,000 extras to recreate Wembley stadium ain’t in the cards).

Bohemian Rhapsody (as it should be), is performance-driven in terms of musicality and thespianism. Rami Malek’s incredible physicality is more than enough to carry the day. He fills out Freddie’s wife-beater and makes the mercury rise. See guys, two can play at the Queen pun-game.

Yes, the beats are often Behind the Music, yes the “clap clap stomps” that inspired “We Will Rock You” are so cheesy they should be grated on bruschetta, and yes the band members not initialed F.M. fade into the background more than they should…but there’s no denying (despite what you’ve read elsewhere) that this is an immensely enjoyable popcorn movie.

Mike Myers is cracking as a nay-saying EMI exec who bought into Pink Floyd’s excesses but balked at Queen’s. Aaron McCusker (of the original, superior UK version of Shameless) is sweetly endearing as Mercury’s love interest, Jim.

Is the Freddie characterization too straight, too gay, not bi enough, not gay enough? He could’ve been defined in life, so leave him alone in death.

Will you get more subtext than text about what made him tick? Hardly. But what you’ll come away with is the rush of being able to experience the rise to fame of one of the world’s greatest bands, if you were too young to experience it the first go-round.

And for a supersonic talent like Freddie Mercury, that’s tribute enough.

On with the show.

***1/2 (out of 5)