Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

Cast:
Matt Dillon (Narrator)
Giorgio Chinaglia (Cosmos striker – Italy)
Shep Messing (Cosmos goalkeeper – U.S.)
Johan Cruyff (Cosmos player – Netherlands)
Carlos Alberto (Cosmos player – Brazil)
Franz Beckenbauer (Cosmos player – Germany)
Jay Emmett (Warner Communications president)
Clive Toye (NASL spokesman)
Steve Hunt (Cosmos player – England)
Rodney Marsh (Tampa Bay Rowdies player – England)
Werner Roth (Cosmos defender)
Bobby Smith (Cosmos player)
Mia Hamm (Women’s World Cup champion)
Steve Ross (Warner Comms. Chairman) (footage only)
Pelé (Cosmos striker – Brazil) (footage only)

Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower

Summary:
The perfect mix of style and substance, visuals, music and words, “Once in a Lifetime” may be one of the best sports documentaries ever made.

Story:
Chronicling the story of the New York Cosmos soccer team from their formation by Warner CEO Steve Ross to the glory years, where millions of dollars were being spent to bring in the best international players like Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer, many of whom lived their lives to great excess.

Analysis:
A movie about soccer might not seem like something that would interest most Americans, whether they be sports fans or not, but there’s something about this new doc, put together by a super-group of doc veterans, that may be able to win over the most diehard skeptics. Then again, my opinion may be slightly biased by my own obsession with the sport and memories of the times, but there’s no question that the filmmakers behind this movie have found a sports story for the ages.

The New York Cosmos were like the Yankees of their time, doling out millions of dollars to get the best international players and becoming a sports phenomenon in the process. It wasn’t always like that though. Warner Communications head Steve Ross first created the team from scratch with a hodgepodge of local talent in hopes of recapturing the country’s former interest in soccer. The early Cosmos played to miniscule crowds on Randall’s Island, until Ross realized that the sport needed a superstar if it was to bring people into the empty seats.

That turning point came in the form of Brazilian legend and international soccer phenom Pelé, and fittingly, the acquisition of the Cosmos’ most renowned player in 1975 gets its own section of the movie. Steve Ross’ attempt to woo Pelé away from his country almost turns into an international incident, until no less than Henry Kissinger steps in to settle it. Pelé’s arrival starts the ball rolling for a run of superstar signings like Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, a flashy grandstander who competes with Pelé for the attention of the expanding Cosmos fanbase.

Many former Cosmos reflect on their memories of playing for the team, and it’s only a minor disappointment that the filmmakers weren’t able to get Pelé to talk, further adding to the mystique of arguably the greatest player the sport has ever produced. The most revealing insights come from behind-the-scenes players like former Warners president Jay Emmett, who points out the “Rashomon” nature of the way that the stories being told contradict each other. However you look at it, Chinaglia doesn’t come across very well. After joining the club, he created tension with Pelé, brought in many of his own people to make himself look better and became almost a shadow cabinet to Ross in making key decisions. There’s a lot of badmouthing and finger-pointing to the arrogant Italian, blaming him for why the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League failed, but he’s unrepentant even thirty years later. The politics behind the team often overshadows the matches and game play.

Contrary to the movie’s subtitle, there’s more to this robust documentary than just the history of the Cosmos on and off the field. It also successfully proves its thesis of how the popularity of the sport grew in America with the growing success of the team, even as the sport became Americanized with cheerleaders and mascots to make it more palatable to the thousands of fans who filled stadiums every game.

What makes “Once in a Lifetime” so special is the way that editor and co-director Paul Crowder–he edited Stacy Peralta’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and “Riding Giants”–uses innovative, and often subtle, tricks to keep things visually interesting when cutting together the interviews and archival footage. The fast-paced editing keeps the movie exciting and entertaining, driven by a soundtrack of classic and obscure songs from the ’70s, including everything from soul and disco to the Osmonds. This soundtrack is one of the best this year, and it perfectly sets the mood and pace of the story.

Ultimately, the story of the Cosmos comes to a bittersweet end, as player excess and the egos of those behind-the-scenes forces the bottom to fall out with Warners and the NASL losing millions of dollars on the Cosmos. The team was shut down without much fanfare in the middle of their 1985 season, and it wasn’t until five years later, when the U.S. qualified for the World Cup for the first time in forty years, where it seemed like soccer might make a comeback in this country. As the movie points out, that might never have happened without the Cosmos’ contribution to creating American fans for the sport.

The Bottom Line:
Whether or not you’re a soccer fan, you can’t deny how engaging the Cosmos’ story is due to how Paul Crowder assembles interviews and archival footage into a fast-paced documentary that rarely lets up. Even skeptics of the sport should be won over by this unique look at American sports history.

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