When MovieRob announced ‘Sports Themed Films’ as April’s Genre Grandeur theme, I knew right away which movie I would review: the 1971 tv movie, Brian’s Song! One reason for this decision was the fact I had this film on my DVR. But when I recently checked my DVR, Brian’s Song was nowhere to be found. This is not the first time this has happened to me, where a recorded program on my DVR has suddenly disappeared. But it did not deter me from reviewing Brian’s Song. On a recent trip to the library, I found a DVD copy of the film. It was perfect timing, as I was soon going to watch and write about the movie! In the world of made-for-tv film productions, there are those that are well-known, for better or worse. Brian’s Song is one of the more respected titles, garnering praise since its 1971 release. But will I join the choir and sing this movie’s praises? Or will I skip a trip on the bandwagon? You won’t know if Brian’s Song scored a touchdown unless you read this review!
Before I begin this review, I would like to point out there will be a few spoilers within this article.
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: I really liked the cast of Brian’s Song! But because this story primarily revolves around Brian and Gale’s friendship, this review will focus on the performances of James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. When I think of Billy Dee Williams, I think of Lando from Star Wars! It has been years since I’ve seen the original trilogy in the Star Wars franchise. But from what I remember, Billy’s on-screen personality was charismatic and larger-than-life. His portrayal of Gale Sayers was very different from his portrayal of Lando, as it was more reserved. However, it was packed with emotion! When Gale first meets Brian, he is taken aback by Brian’s outgoing personality. Gale’s eyes contain the awkwardness of the situation and his body language appeared tenser than Brian’s. Gale also spoke with few words, carefully choosing what to say next. Meanwhile, as I’ve just said, Brian was outgoing and confident. In this first meeting, Brian walks up to Gale, immediately recalling a conversation they had prior to training. At the first team dinner, Brian sings his alma mater’s fight song, not afraid to look silly in front of his team members. This on-screen personality was different from James’ westerns I’ve seen, where his character has typically been rugged and serious.
One of the best scenes in Brian’s Song is when Brian is building exercise equipment for Gale. Before this gesture, Gale injured his leg during a game. Angry about the situation, he is bitter toward Brian. Gale angrily objects to Brian’s plan, with this objection meeting Brian’s reason for the gesture. Brian recalls how, in high school, he was demoted on his football team due to a more talented team member. He also shares how he was demoted again, as Gale is the stronger player among the two of them. Now that Brian has a top position on the Chicago Bears, he would rather help Gale heal from his injury, as Brian claims his recent top position was given to him “for the wrong reasons”. This is one of those scenes where the audience can understand both characters’ reasoning. Through Billy’s expressions, Gale is less reserved, gaining some of Brian’s confidence to angrily explain his objections. James shows a side of gentle humbleness, as Brian recounts moments of self-doubt. It is a good example of how the differences in acting performances can complement both of them!
The football game footage: Brian’s Song featured game footage whenever the Chicago Bears made a game appearance. I’m not sure if this footage was taken from actual games or if it was filmed for the sake of the movie. Either way, its inclusion added a sense of realism to the overall narrative. In one scene, Gale and Brian are talking to each other on the sidelines. This scene was filmed as if it was part of a television broadcast, captured in a grainier image. This cinematography felt consistent to the game footage I talked about. It also presented a different way to include football games in a story, as most football themed movies place, at least, one football game during their story’s climax.
The voice-overs: During the aforementioned game footage, voice-overs of Brian and Gale could be heard. These voice-overs consisted of conversations between the two, with different topics being discussed. I like how the voice-overs were added over the footage. It reminded me of sports commentators, except the game itself was never brought up in these conversations. The voice-overs provided insight into Brian and Gale’s friendship. Their humor and perspectives could be picked up in these voice-overs, allowing the audience to learn more about them.
What I didn’t like about the film:
Glossed over racism: After football training for the Chicago Bears begins, Gale is told by the team’s head coach that he and Brian will be the first interracial roommates in professional football history. Because of this, Chicago Bears’ staff prepare Gale for the racism he will likely experience. I know there is only so much to cover in a made-for-tv movie, especially one that is about an hour and thirteen minutes. But when it comes to the racism Gale encounters, there was more telling than showing. Besides the staff’s preparations, the only racism present in the story is when Brian reads Gale a mean letter through a voice-over. The glossing over of racism surprised me, since the story takes place in 1965, a year within a decade known for the Civil Rights Movement.
Confusing aspects of the football training process: The story of Brian’s Song starts at the beginning of Chicago Bears’ training. When this process began, I found myself confused by what was happening on screen. I wondered why a professional football team was gathering on a college campus? Why was the coach and his staff talking about cutting team members? Was a draft supposed to take place before training began? I know a certain amount of information about professional football. However, the training process isn’t one of those subjects. It also doesn’t help how the script was written as if expecting the audience to know that kind of information from that specific period in time. I wish explanations were provided in the dialogue.
Omitted grief of the team: Remember when I said there were a few spoilers in this review? Well, this is where I will bring those up. At one point in the story, Brian is diagnosed with cancer. After learning of Brian’s diagnosis, Gale makes an emotional pep talk to the Bears, vowing to dedicate their upcoming game to Brian. At the end of the movie, Gale reveals through a voice-over Brian passed away. In the aforementioned scene featuring Gale’s pep talk, the sadness of the news could be seen on the faces of the team members. While they all carried long, heartbroken faces, some of them even held tears in their eyes. With that said, I would guess Brian’s passing would leave everyone involved with the team devastated. As I said before in this review, there is only so much to cover in a made-for-tv movie. But I think a final scene/epilogue showing how the Bears dealt with Brian’s passing should have been included. Was Brian’s jersey honorably retired? Did he receive a posthumous MVP award? I’m not familiar with Chicago Bears’ history, so I’m not sure how the team responded to Brian’s passing in real life. However, omitting it from the script seems like a disservice to the team members who knew him.
My overall impression:
Before Billy Dee Williams entered a galaxy far, far away and before James visited the wild, wild west, there was a little made-for-tv film called Brian’s Song. Fifty-one years after this movie debuted, it has still held a favorable reputation, regarded as one of the most beloved television films of all time. Brian’s Song is a fine production with its heart in the right place. But I wasn’t as emotionally affected by it as I expected. Yes, this movie’s story is a sad one. However, I was familiar with Brian and Gale’s story before I saw the film. This knowledge prevented me from being emotionally caught off guard when a sadder, more dramatic moment happened. Like I just said, this movie had its heart in the right place. One way this statement is put into action is how the cast appears to truly care about the respective material. The film also features interesting creative decisions, such as football game footage and voice-overs over that footage. Before I end this review, I would like to point out how accessible Brian’s Song is, as I happened to chance upon a copy of it on DVD. Not every made-for-tv movie is lucky, as some of them are either harder to find or lost to time.
Overall score: 7.1 out of 10
Have you seen Brian’s Song? Which made-for-tv movie would you consider a “classic”? Let me know in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!