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Pele: Birth of a Legend

MPI Home Video // PG // September 20, 2016
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted October 20, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

There are two perceptions of Pele, one is widely known, the other perhaps less so. There is the one we know, the ebullient soccer star who exploded on the world stage in the 1958 World Cup, winning the first of three trophies for Brazil. The guy who was one of the icons as part of the North American Soccer League for the New York Cosmos and is at the top (or just before it) of every list of the top soccer players in history. There is another Pele, a little lesser known, who I'll elaborate on in a bit, but it seems strange that a movie hadn't been made about Pele's life, or one that I know of at least.

Pele: Birth of a Legend was written and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who directed the excellent The Two Escobars documentary on Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar and drug lord Pablo Escobar for ESPN. Birth of a Legend concentrates on Pele's life from the time he was 8, playing soccer without shoes in the streets of Brazil. It moves to his first professional team in Santos and eventually to the Brazil national team, and the tutelage of Vincente Feola (Vincent D'Onofrio, Men in Black). Pele's rise to stardom, combined with staying true to his roots of creative soccer, lovingly titled ‘ginga,' is shown as every obstacle in the book seems to be thrown in his way, whether it may be a contentious teammate, formidable opponent, or stodgy coach.

So on one hand you have Pele, globally recognizable sporting legend. The other, lesser known yet fairly prominent Pele is the opportunistic one. Years of exploitation by the Brazilian government (despite deeming him a national treasure when he was in his early 20s) and business associates left his finances in some shambles, so now just about anything Pele does has some sort of direct financial benefit to him, which he sees some mockery from. In Birth of a Legend, he served as one of the Executive Producers on the film. And if his role in the film was to collect a percentage from whatever profits the film made from an expected popular windfall, I'd have to think he'll be waiting on for quite some time.

Because for a guy who is part of a movie made on his formative years, there is a sense of apathy just how his story is told. A film set in Brazil, featuring Brazilian kids, which moves to Sweden for the third act, all told in English, because reasons I guess, but I don't think anyone would fault Birth of a Legend for being true to its roots, even as it goes flash over substance over the course of 105 minutes. Pele goes through several different conflicts with his character, be it a rich kid who is taking a roster spot, or Feola's conservative structure, or a potentially threatening injury, or his World Cup final opponents Sweden, coached by George Raynor (Colm Meaney, Layer Cake). These opponents represent one of countless story antagonists we've seen before and will see again, and they are executed clunkily without any sort of conviction paid to them because, frankly, we all know how this story ends, right?

As far as the cast goes, they have varying degrees of adequacy. Kevin de Paula plays Pele in his first role and there is a Chadwick Boseman-esque charisma to him, with a little more modesty to it. Playing Pele's father Dondinho is musician Seu Jorge, whom many may recognize in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In that film he sung David Bowie songs in Portuguese while speaking English. In Birth of a Legend, he plays a Brazilian who doesn't speak Brazilian. I dunno either. The most confounding performance is D'Onofrio's, who delivers many of his lines after watching Al Pacino in Scarface I think. The connection to Brazilian football is tenuous, D'Onofrio rambles, and at times I think may have entirely been done in ADR. The more I think about it, the more I think the Zimbalists may have been left to their own devices.

I had hoped that Berth of a Legend would introduce a new generation to what made the last one fall in love with Pele and his skills, but the movie does little more than rehash the same storytelling tropes used in any other sports film before it, making the film feel, at times, like a soccer game (zing!). In wanting to give us one Pele, we got the other whose fingerprints were only here to grab the check that came from the project.

The Disc:
The Video:

Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, Birth of a Legend looks as good as one would expect. The yellows of the Brazil jersey (and the blues of the road one that Pele wore which announced his emergence to the world) look vivid and without saturation problems. The image has a fairly varied palette, particularly once they get to practicing Feola's more structure formations in Europe, where things lean a little grayer. When the Brazilians get to indulge in their ginga, colors are spectacular and the disc looks good.

The Sound:

Dolby Digital 5.1 surround befits Pele, and the soundtrack is quite active throughout. The generic Brazilian zomba sounds clean and immersive through the theater during the soccer montage sequences. Quieter moments have clean and well-balanced dialogue, and the crowd noises during the World Cup is just as immersive. The production values for the disc are nice, that's for sure.


Three extras here, all brief, one of which is the trailer (2:24): a behind the scenes look at the film (1:40) which looks at the story of Pele and style of play, and a making of on the film (2:22) which shows the Zimbalists as they talk about their attraction to the material and Pele talks about his life a little. Pele is subtitled, which adds a strangely humorous wrinkle for me, given the film itself.

Final Thoughts:

Pele: Birth of a Legend is a film whose story has been told dozens of times before, full stop. That it has its subject's blessing gives it a small curse of being the cinematic authorized biography, and little do you know it fulfills that part in every way. Technically the disc is nice though the extras are scant and forgettable. Save this one for a World Cup party or something.

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