'Undefeated': Football Doc a Winner for All Audiences
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
You do not have to be a fan of sports to appreciate great sportswriting. And the biggest compliment I can give the Oscar-nominated documentary "Undefeated" is that it feels like great sportswriting. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who previously filmed the world of sport in the probably less-affecting "Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong," "Undefeated" is about the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, Tenn., as coached by Bill Courtney. Early on, Courtney tells his charges, "You think football builds character? It does not. Football reveals character." And so, too, does "Undefeated."
Lindsay and Martin follow the Tigers for the 2009 season. The school is beyond poor: the coach an impassioned volunteer, the team tired of decades of being a joke. Comparisons to "Friday Night Lights" will be inevitable, and Lindsay and Martin have taken pains to note to the press that they only became aware of and started watching "Friday Night Lights" halfway through. But the film is much, much more than a mere riff on "Lights."
And part of that is Courtney, a businessman and former coach and football fan who looked at Manassas' record of 110 years without winning a playoff game and decided to do something about it. Courtney is hard to like at times, and hard to understand -- and he's also getting ready to stop coaching the Tigers after six and a half years. But a colleague said it best: "If I could get one of Courtney's halftime speeches in the morning, I'd be president before lunch."
But we get to know the kids, too, and their blighted community, where the factory shut down years ago and took near everything with it. Many sports documentaries, and sports commentary, note how young men, black and white, can put so much hope in the possibility of a football scholarship. What "Undefeated" shows is kids who need football not just because of what it can do for them but also for what they can do for it: show up on time, meet expectations, put in work, enjoy well-earned results. One player, injured, is desperate to return to the game, because that's when he mattered.
The cinematography and editing, both done by Lindsay and Martin, create the kind of all-American epic realism that is the province of great sports stories and Springsteen songs and hymns sung loud in hand-built churches. The film's compression of time is never rushed, and pays off in the dividend that after months of following and filming, Courtney and his team just let them shoot and be present. Michael Brooks' music (with extensive additional work by Daniel McMahon and Miles Nielsen) is suitably majestic and sparse, while the soundtrack encompasses everything from grunting blues rock by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys to the jaunty gospel of the Rev. John Wilkins' "Let the Redeemed Say So." The fact is that this story is a familiar one, but it is superbly told, and there's more than a little Memphis funk in the storytelling, literally and metaphorically, to make this filmmaking stand out.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.