“For a serious documentary, the story should not be about just one person or one moment,” says documentary producer Ross Greenburg. “The story has to reflect an era, a history. Make it laugh, make it tear up and of course make the audience think”. We recommend sports documentaries that are as relevant and powerful today as they were when they were first released.
The winner of the 1997 Academy Award, When We Were Kings – Muhammad Ali (1996) presents an unforgettable portrait of the legendary king of boxing and his fantastic career. The film also features B.B. King, Spike Lee, James Brown, and Zaire’s President Mobutu. The film tells the story of how Muhammad Ali achieved his greatest success and how his life changed as he reassessed his entire life and became a follower of Islam.
On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists from the Black September Movement invaded the Olympic Village and occupied the Israeli athletes’ residence during the Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. They killed two athletes and took nine others hostage. A gripping, suspenseful account of the ’72 Olympics, the documentary One Day in September (1999), sheds new light on how a tragic mistake led to the final, brutal massacre at the German airport.
Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) spans the legendary Brazilian Formula 1 driver’s career from 1984, when he burst onto the F1 scene as a major talent, to the tragic events of 1994. It shows his physical and mental struggle on and off the track to become the perfect driver. Produced with the selfless help of the Senna family and Formula 1 management, Senna is the first official and best documentary on the life of the legendary driver, featuring a wealth of never-before-seen archive footage.
Alex Honnold is perhaps the world’s most daring rock climber, who tackled the 900-metre granite face of El Capitan without a safety rope. The near-vertical rock face in Yosemite National Park has been attempted by many climbers without much success. Honnold didn’t leave his plan to chance, spending almost seven years preparing for the seemingly impossible feat, training in Europe, the United States, China, and Morocco. National Geographic followed the climb and part of the preparation, and the documentary Free Solo (2018) won an Academy Award.
Kapadia’s other masterpiece, Diego Maradona (2019), follows the story of the footballer all the way back to 1991, when he started out in poverty and rose to idol status in his second home, Naples. This unusual portrait is special if only because it shows everything we want to see and everything we might not… The emerging talent, the football superstar, the god of Naples, the friend of gangsters, and finally, his fall.
The Last Dance (2020) focuses on Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls and their attempt to win their sixth championship in eight years. We see the teammates, who all tell compelling and moving stories… And of course we have the madman Dennis Rodman as a “supporting character”, but the focus is never too far from Jordan; his incredible talent, dogmatic determination, huge fire and sometimes, of course, his anguish. All in all, we get a stunning portrait of a truly complex athletic icon who admirably exploited his flaws to achieve perfection, but the director is not afraid to show a side of Jordan that is certainly not very sympathetic. We see the man who has become an iconic brand, with huge movie hits and legendary sneakers that now cost a fortune.