Pelé is a two-hour documentary about the great Brazilian footballer — the greatest footballer ever, some would say — who played in four World Cups (a record) and was one of the first global sporting superstars. But while there is plenty of footage showing his astonishing talent, if you’re interested in what made him tick, or what his life was like off the pitch, or how adulation might ultimately mess with your head, then move on, nothing to see here. Or, to put it another way, if, like me, you’re the sort of person who goes straight to ‘Personal life’ whenever you look someone up on Wikipedia, it’s as if that section has been excised. However, if you are not that sort of person, you may come away more satisfied and less bored.
Directed by David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas, and executive produced by Kevin Macdonald, this story, in as much as there is one, is conventionally told with archive footage, dramatic music and talking heads, including Pelé himself, now 80. You don’t have to enjoy sport to enjoy a sports film. Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Maradonaare masterclasses in what it is to go after the soul of your subject. Damned United, about Brian Clough, with a screenplay by Peter Morgan and directed by Tom Hooper, included almost no football at all (always a relief). But I don’t know what you’d get from this that you wouldn’t get from watching a compilation of clips on YouTube. If you’re of that mind.
The narrative is chronological, beginning with Pelé’s childhood. He was born into poverty and his father was a footballer, but it wasn’t lucrative back then, and Pelé had to work as a shoeshine boy to bring in extra. He couldn’t afford a football and, as a kid, played with either a grapefruit or a stuffed sock. The grapefruit, the stuffed sock, are just the kind of vivid details you want, but I read about those on Wikipedia. Quite why the filmmakers couldn’t get any such vivid recollections out of Pelé, who is sitting in front of them, is anyone’s guess.
He rose to stardom at 15 and by 17 was playing in his first World Cup. He was not just an incredibly gifted player but was also handsome and captivating. That smile! He remembers travelling to Sweden in 1958, and how the Swedes tried to rub off his colour because ‘they hadn’t seen black people before’. That detail, I liked. There is footage from all the World Cups, and this covers the highs, the lows, the injuries, but not his celebrity. ‘The psychological aspects can really mess with you,’ he says at one point, but no one comes back at him with: how? He is asked about cosying up to Brazil’s military dictatorship, but is allowed to get away with: ‘What could I do?’ He is asked about his first marriage and whether it was hard to stay faithful. ‘It was,’ he replies. ‘And I had a few affairs and a few children I only heard about later.’ And it’s left there. If you do visit ‘Personal life’, because you’re that sort of person, you will see he had one daughter whom he refused to acknowledge despite the fact that a DNA test proved he was the father. But this is a wholly admiring, adoring film, and nothing is ever permitted to interfere with that.
It stops abruptly with his last World Cup in 1970, so you get none of Pelé’s life after sport — what is it like to be a piece of living memorabilia? — and it occurs to me now that a documentary hasn’t done its job when you have more questions at the end than at the beginning. I’m also wondering if this project was hampered because Pelé can’t be interesting about himself. Are you allowed to say that about a sporting god? Done it now.
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