At the rate that the giant streaming services are producing sport documentaries, they should be getting it down to a fine art by now. The latest intimate study, courtesy of Netflix, is of Pelé, the acclaimed Brazilian who is frequently ranked the greatest footballer (and often athlete) of all time.
Directors David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas collate a remarkable reserve of historical footage, spliced with older and more recent interviews. There are new discussions with former teammates, modern journalists and of course with the man himself. In a telling sign of Pelé’s endearing popularity, it appears just about everyone wants to talk about him. Accompanying these conversations is a near-constant base layer of wild crowd noise, newsreaders/commentators blurting out superlatives or upbeat samba music, designed, undoubtedly, to interrupt the monotony of voices. Keen to give the documentary more edge and substance, the movie takes in not only Pelé’s rise to superstardom, but contextualises it within the troubles of Brazil and the country’s tumultuous political landscape.
But what about the main focus, the man himself? As a sportsperson he’s obviously remarkable. His legend so well-known, so admired, that his name is synonymous with the game. That name is often accompanied by Maradona’s, an equally celebrated sportsman. Maradona has also received similar (if not more) film treatment, the subject of innumerable documentaries and origin stories. But what those works have and what any feature about Pelé the man will always lack, is an eccentricity of character and a tragic pathos.
In that respect the two megastars of football are poles apart. Whereas Maradona’s life story careens from comedy to despair – as the troubled national idol tackles adversity and an array of complex issues – Pelé’s ascension has come with fewer ups and downs. That in itself is remarkable, that his meteoric rise hasn’t wreaked havoc on his personal life in a way that befalls so many elite sportspeople.
But without the personal life intrigue, how does the doc fare at providing insight into the mentality of a sporting giant? That awareness is provided by the people that would know such a thing; a clear image is built of immense pressure on young shoulders and the head on those shoulders having the resolve and mentality to persevere.
Informative and entertaining – without ever electrifying the audience or overloading them with facts and figures – Pelé is a functional, impressive project. Meticulously researched and offering a smorgasbord of interviews and reflections, anybody looking to enjoy the story of a footballing god’s rapid rise would be well served with this offering.
Pelé is released digitally on Netflix on 23rd February 2021.
Watch the trailer for Pelé here: