Thursday, August 9, 2012

The amount of Olympic movies--and Olympic movie scores--is as small as my desire to watch tape-delayed Olympic events

I always thought the first-season Starfleet uniforms on Star Trek: The Next Generation made the Enterprise crew look like either Olympic bobsledders or figure skaters.
Cool Runnings
"I have to begin by noting this is a fairly small genre," warned Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan on NPR before he discussed with a colleague their favorite movies about the Olympics last week, as American viewers reached the tail end of their first week of mostly tape-delayed (bleh!) Olympic fever. Conan wondered why there aren't so many Olympic movies. You would think with their cinematic scale and dramatic stories of struggle and uplift that the Olympics would be as frequent a subject in film as baseball, but that hasn't been the case.

"One reason may have to do with the international aspect of the Olympics and the fact that sometimes we think of sports movies as coming to a climax of the big game, with the good guys versus the bad guys. But with this whole Olympic ideal of a world community of sport, there are theoretically no bad guys in the Olympics," theorized Talk of the Nation film commentator Murray Horwitz, who also mentioned the International Olympic Committee's tight leash on the Olympic brand as another possible reason for the small amount of Olympic movies.

Tokyo was the site for the Summer Olympics in 1964, B.S. (Before Steroids).
Tokyo Olympiad (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
It's also a genre that hasn't yielded a film I could consider a masterpiece. (I've never seen the Toshiro Mayuzumi-scored Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa's 1965 documentary about the 1964 games, One Day in September, the 1999 doc about the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Munich, Steven Spielberg's take on the 1972 tragedy, but I'm aware those three films are highly respected.) I haven't seen Chariots of Fire since the '80s, but I remember being kind of bored by the film, so its trouncing of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the 1981 Best Picture Oscar race has always been absurd to me.

The NPR guys are fans of Miracle and Cool Runnings, which both happen to be Disney movies. Miracle is a good but not great sports movie, bolstered by Kurt Russell's compelling performance as 1980 U.S. Hockey Team coach Herb Brooks. As for Cool Runnings, the late John Candy killed it in a change-of-pace dramatic turn, and if you're not moved by the Jamaican bobsledders' emergence from their accident in the film's climax, you're a goddamn robot (report back to your leader Mitt Romney for instructions on how to better relate to the carbon units because he's such an expert).

But Cool Runnings diverges so much from what actually happened to the Jamaican team (for instance, Candy's disgraced coach character never existed), and the fish-out-of-water shtick that was written for Cosby and Where I Live star Doug E. Doug borders on Stepin Fetchit-y. Doug was so good in his breakout role as the wanna-be militant in Hangin' with the Homeboys. I always wanted to see the cameras follow his Homeboys character to a theater where Cool Runnings was playing just so I could see his reaction to that Rasta who's so damn scared all the time like a butler in some '30s movie.

"They've pulled down the Berlin Wall. The Palestinians and the Israelis are talking peace. But they're still making comedies like Cool Runnings, in which cartoonish natives scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world," complained then-Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson in 1993.

What about the music in these Olympic movies? Do their original scores make you scratch your head like a Disneyfied Rasta? Or like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor's threepeat or Gabby Douglas and her coach Liang Chow's success story or the standing ovation Saudi runner Sarah Attar received while making history despite finishing last, do they make your spirit soar?

Because there aren't a lot of Olympic movies, the "Feeling Very Olympic Today" playlist I assembled from the highlights of those movies' original scores isn't a lengthy one. That's why I padded the playlist with John Williams' Olympic compositions. The playlist kicks off with Vangelis' overplayed but rousing Chariots of Fire main title theme, which Rowan Atkinson amusingly poked fun at during his appearance as Mr. Bean in the London opening ceremonies. Hans Zimmer's Cool Runnings score and the catchy "Jamaican Bobsledding Chant"--penned by Yul Brenner himself, Malik Yoba--aren't on Spotify, so Cool Runnings is represented by the cover of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" that Jimmy Cliff recorded for the movie.

Slap Shot, Shaolin Soccer, the original Longest Yard, the original Bad News Bears, Diggstown, Breaking Away and White Men Can't Jump are my favorite sports movies. It's too bad the Olympic movie genre hasn't given us a movie as subversive or clever as those works.

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