Television is awash with sports documentaries that, on closer inspection, turn out to be puff pieces. The problem is that in a world ruled by comms managers and optics czars, most of these documentaries have to make a Faustian pact in order to be made at all. To get access to the hallowed celebrity or the legendary team, the documentary makers must make them appear more hallowed or legendary.
So a new, supposedly intimate documentary series about David Beckham, made as it happens by David Beckham’s TV production company, does not augur well. Of all the sportstars-slash-celebs of the modern era, Beckham, with his wife, the Spice Girl Victoria – who candidly talks about his alleged affair here for the first time – is the one who has most excelled at monetising sporting excellence (and a decade before monetising was even a word).
One thing that these films highlight, however, is how Beckham has always liked proving people wrong. He is an unusual combination of people-pleaser and stubborn bugger, and the Beckham documentary (Netflix), filmed at his instigation, turns out not to be a puff piece at all. It was Beckham himself who appointed Fisher Stevens, an Oscar-winning documentary-maker for The Cove (better known here for his role as long-necked Comms Manager Hugo in Succession) to direct, and it was an inspired choice.
From the first frame, Stevens, an American, comes at Beckham from oblique angles. Stevens has little interest in Brand Beckham, tabloid truisms or, frankly, English football in the Nineties and Noughties. Instead, he frames Beckham’s story as one of working-class Britain, caustic masculinity and daddy issues. In particular, the scenes in which Beckham and Alex Ferguson are intercut, talking about how Ferguson turned on, and cast out, the boy who he’d raised like a son, are simply heartbreaking.
Victoria is given ample screen time and surprises with her perspicacity. No topics are off limits: Stevens goes to both husband and wife about claims David had an affair while he was playing for Real Madrid in 2003. Victoria, speaking for the first time directly about the alleged affair, calls it “the most unhappy I’ve ever been” and the lowest point of their marriage. Given that the story up to this stage has been one of Posh and Becks versus the world, it’s remarkable that she is prepared to concede (for the first time in public) that anything even happened, let alone that it nearly broke them. Beckham for his part clams up - and again, Stevens lets the camera keep rolling to stress how much the smiling superstar would rather be doing anything else than talking about it his own failings.
Stevens has a keen eye for Beckham’s telling idiosyncrasies (the camera notes several times how he simply can’t abide clutter or disorder), while the film’s editing gives a welcome reminder of just how good a player he was, aside from all the sarongs and scuttlebutt.
A measure of Beckham’s character comes not just in the many, many interviews he gives Stevens but in the people who crop up to talk about Beckham – the casting call is ridiculous, including everyone from Ronaldo (mk 1) to Anna Wintour to Sir Alex to panto villain Diego Simeone.
The only bum note is a scene right at the end when the Beckhams convene as a family to show how much they all love their dad. But, to judge by what’s gone before, even that, broadly, rings true. Beckham is a superb, unexpected, complex portrayal – both of an era and of an unexpectedly complex man.
Beckham is available on Netflix now