Hundreds of soccer documentaries have been made, but for Americans who love the sport, they generally lead only to further frustration. The domestic efforts to address the sport we love tend to be either defensive (insisting over and over again that soccer is as worthy of adoration as baseball or football) or academic (trying to reason strangers to the game, hoping that, through education, they will come to understand and appreciate it). The European and Latin ones, though more enjoyable, ultimately serve only to reminds us of what we can never have. For the American soccer fan, then, Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos is like a bolt of lightning on a sunny day: an explosion of sudden, blinding power that comes utterly out of nowhere, so unexpected that it leaves you breathless. It's a wide-eyed, delirious celebration of American soccer, the likes of which we've never seen. And it's indescribably wonderful, the kind of film that brings a smile to your face the moment it begins and doesn't let go. Directors Paul Crowder and John Dower clearly love soccer, and they revel in the insanity that was the New York Cosmos, the team that dominated the North American Soccer League (NASL) during its glory days of the late 1970's. Their passion and energy is in every frame of the film, and in combination with sharp editing (Crowder is an editor by trade), an irresistible soundtrack, and a clever, 70's inspired sensibility that touches everything from the movie's fonts to its music, they serve to make the film and its story irresistible.
Built on interviews with key management personnel and former players, the movie details the creation of the NASL, and the process through which it grew from a league that drew only a handful of fans to most games and had to beg for press coverage, to one that could sell out Giants Stadium (75,000 people -- at a soccer game! In the US!) and was known world-wide. At the root of that explosion were Steve Ross, president of Warner Entertainment, and his New York Cosmos. Ross had passion for sports and, he discovered, soccer, and unlimited funds through Warner. It was those funds, unsurprisingly, that bought the league the key that would unlock the door to American hearts: Pele. In 1975, when the highest-paid athlete in the US was getting a few hundred-thousand dollars a year, Warner paid the greatest soccer player of all time between $2 and $5 million (even today, no one knows for sure) to come to the US and be a members of the Cosmos for two years. And, suddenly, everyone knew about the Cosmos and the NASL -- the door was open and the league walked through it. One day the Cosmos were unknowns, the next they were being worshiped at Studio 54. It was a miraculous, thrilling, hysterical time, and Once in a Lifetime masterfully captures it with a tone of giddy wonder.
Just as incredible as the events that made the Cosmos the darlings of New York and the nation were the personalities involved. From the God-like Pele (the only principal not interviewed in the film -- the sound of a cash register is heard when his refusal to participate is revealed on-screen) to Italian firebrand Giorgio Chinaglia, the greatest scorer in the history of the NASL and by all accounts a complete bastard; from Henry Kissinger who, unbelievably, was instrumental in bringing Pele to the US, to Mick Jagger who stalked the Cosmos locker room, almost everyone involved with the team sometimes seemed larger-than-life.
Beneath the bravado and the bright lights, though, was a passionate commitment to a game, a league, and a team, and Crowder and Dower are careful to weave those more fundamental elements through their film, as well. We hear, for example, about the team's surprisingly selfless desire to win the NASL title in 1977 because it was Pele's final year as a professional, and his teammates were desperate to help him leave the game as a champion. Carlos Alberto, the former captain of the Brazilian national team, is near tears when he talks about how much the Cosmos meant to him. And Franz Beckenbauer, one of the greatest players in soccer history and a World Cup winner, speaks with quiet reverence of being on the field during the 1977 title game.
For soccer fanatics and the simply curious alike, Once in a Lifetime is an un-missable experience. The story it tells is a fascinating one, filled with events and personalities so huge and outrageous that any movie about them would be enthralling. What makes Crowder and Dower's film truly great, however, is the way that story is told -- the film's wit, eagerness, and utterly shameless devotion to its subject make it take flight, and leave the audience with a feeling of profound elation that's almost impossible to shake. It's magical, humbling and very odd to be so deeply moved by a sports documentary, but Once in a Lifetime is a extraordinary film.