The amazing story of Brazilian sports icon Pelé, possibly the greatest footballer that ever lived (down, Maradona fans, down!) is packaged as a flashy, rousing crowd-pleaser that succeeds despite its clichés. Focused on his early years, up until his spectacular debut on the global stage, at 17 in the 1958 World Cup, Pelé: Birth of a Legend is a formulaic by-the-numbers biopic, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.
There’s a real vibrancy to the early scenes in which we’re first introduced to our hero – 9-year-old shoeshine boy Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Dico as he is nicknamed by his parents – joyfully playing the sport in bare feet with his ragtag group of friends in the streets of his poor village Bauru. Documentary filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist recreate the milieu and the spirit of the times with precision, capturing the nation’s collective sense of despair over Brazil’s loss in the World Cup final that year.
We follow the young prodigy as he acquires the name Pelé (originally intended as an insult by upper-class bullies), then virtually gives up the sport after a terrible tragedy. A montage in which his janitor father, once a footballer himself, trains the kid to kick mangoes into trash cans is among the film’s best bits. Overcoming obstacles like racism and poverty to work his way up to a professional level, Pelé finally lands a spot on the national team, although his native street soccer style (called ‘ginga’) leads to conflicts with his coaches, particularly the national team manager (Vincent D’Onofrio) who wants him to conform and play like the Europeans do.
There’s virtually no element of surprise or unpredictability in the manner that the film unfolds. But watching Pelé dribble and make those spectacular, seemingly impossible goals is the real pleasure here. AR Rahman’s robust rhythmic score is the lifeblood of the film, and it powers some of the most potent scenes, giving you gooseflesh on more than one occasion.
But critically, until the very end the film never quite manages to give us a real sense of the man whose life it celebrates. Kevin de Paula Rosa, cast as the teenage Pelé, manages the headers, the stunning kicks, and the amazing moves that made the Brazilian athlete world famous, but he can’t seem to bring that childlike sense of elation for the game that separated him from all other players.
For that reason alone, the film works but never flies. I’m going with three out of five for Pelé: Birth of a Legend.