How to deliver a new feature-length documentary about one of the most celebrated careers in British sport – and make it feel fresh?
This is the challenge facing director Joe Pearlman with his latest film, which treads where many have previously stepped in telling the story of Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Matt Busby.
Simply titled Busby, it charts his rise from humble roots in a Scottish mining village to European Cup-winning boss of a team he rebuilt following the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 which killed eight of his renowned ‘Busby Babes’ line-up and left 15 others dead.
As mentioned, Pearlman is by no means the first to cover this ground. Any number of books and TV documentaries have paid tribute to the man whose achievements put United on the road to becoming the global ‘brand’ they are today.
These include the magisterial 1997 television series Busby, Stein and Shankly: The Football Men, written and fronted by that titan of sports journalism Hugh McIlvanney, and a recent, well-received Busby biography by acclaimed football writer Patrick Barclay.
So, is there room on the groaning shelf of Busby-related material, both on screen and in print, for yet another retelling of his remarkable tale?
A few years ago, one might have said maybe not, but in recent times the genre of feature-length films about iconic sports personalities has been firmly established by critical and commercial hits such as Senna and Diego Maradona.
Fulwell 73, the production company behind Busby, has its own decent track record in this respect, having made The Class of 92, about the generation of young talent at United which included Beckham, Giggs and Scholes, as well as Mo Farah: Race Of His Life, Sunderland ‘Til I Die and I Am Bolt.
Pearlman’s most recent film was the Bafta-nominated Bros: After The Screaming Stops, which received plaudits for its unflinching plunge into the rise, fall and rehabilitation of 80s pop stars Matt and Luke Goss.
Of course, with Busby, the film’s key character is long gone (Sir Matt died in 1994), and the danger in such cases is an over-reliance on the same talking heads who may have featured in the many other Busby documentaries.
The other risk of returning to an oft-told tale is that some key contributors to earlier tellings will either no longer be around or not want to participate again and, in truth, there is a hint of that with Busby.
The voice of Bobby Charlton is often heard, but the Old Trafford great is never present on camera, so presumably old interviews have been used (but possibly not; it is unclear). We also neither see nor hear from Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who finally managed to drag Manchester United out of Busby’s long, intimidating shadow.
The roll call of former United players who do feature is still impressive and includes Pat Crerand, John Aston Jr, Alex Stepney, Jeff Whitefoot, Wilf McGuinness, Eamon Dunphy and a still spry-looking Denis ‘The King’ Law.
They are complemented by an array of former United staffers, the son of Busby’s right-hand man Jimmy Murphy – who took charge of the team when his boss laid critically ill in hospital after the Munich crash – plus a clutch of Busby biographers including the aforementioned Patrick Barclay.
All make valuable contributions to the film, but what really makes it stand out as an significant addition to the Busby-United canon is its use of archive film from throughout Busby’s career, first as player and then across the four decades, from the 1940s and into the 70s, of his managerial reign.
Some serious research has taken place here, and whatever large chunk of the budget it must have cost to unearth and secure the rights to use this amazing array of raw material was absolutely worth it.
The bar has been set very high in the past few years by some excellent feature-length sports documentaries, and Busby – more often than not – feels as if it hits that mark
The die-hard United fan who accompanied me to the screening reckons to have seen pretty much every documentary made about his club, but he was astounded by some of the footage, particularly from matches in the early years of Busby’s tenure, when pitches resembled ploughed fields and the crowds looked like they had just stepped out of an L.S. Lowry painting.
We both agreed that the only disappointing aspect of the new film was a closing section which felt rushed as it hurtled through the list of managers who tried and failed to succeed the great man, and did not linger on the one who finally did – Busby’s fellow driven Scot and knight of the realm, Fergie.
At 105 minutes, it feels as if it could have been 15 minutes longer, especially as the pace early on is fairly leisurely. On balance, though, Busby certainly adds something fresh to what has, in recent times, threatened to become an overload of homage to the visionary who revolutionised the British game.
The bar has been set very high in the past few years by some excellent feature-length sports documentaries, and Busby – more often than not – feels as if it hits that mark.
Busby will be in cinemas for one night only on November 11th, available to own on digital download from Nov 15th, and on DVD & Blu-ray from November 18th.
Main photo of Man Utd’s 1968 European Cup winning team, with Sir Matt Busby, courtesy of Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images.