sports gazette

'George Best: All By Himself' BFI Film Festival Review

Published: 17 Oct 2016

If you want to understand the life of El Beatle, then look no further! Sports Gazette continues its BFI Film Festival review season with ‘George Best: All By Himself’, including comments from legendary sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney.

Before the film started, director Daniel Gordon, already renowned for productions Senna and Hillsborough, said that this film was “not a new but a cinematic approach” to George Best’s life.

To be more direct, ‘George Best: All By Himself’ is an incredibly honest biography of the first celebrity in football.

Taking you from the port of Belfast to the funeral ceremony in Stormont, the film pieces together Best’s life through archive football footage, interviews with family and close friends and unseen clips of the Northern Irishman.

Previous works on Best have focussed heavily on one of two elements: the football or the alcoholism. Gordon’s film creates the perfect balance to define how the two were both influential on Best’s life.

When discussing Best’s football, the viewer is treated to colour footage of Best at his best! The high definition colour and the image of the crowds encapsulate how iconic a footballer Best was.

However, there are also moments when original black and white footage transport the viewer back to the moment. When watching Best’s goals, I found myself ‘oohing and aahing’ as if I was watching the match live!

At one point Best said that his “life revolved around football”. The footage, original commentary and interviews illustrate this superbly.

Then the 1968 Champions League final comes along. This is the turning point in the film because, when George Best’s extra-time goal is shown, everything freezes as Best explains his emotions.

This is followed by the alcoholism; illustrated with pale photographs on Best escaping the media, vocalised by concerned friends and family whose opinions are harshly contradicted by Best.

As McIlvennay told us, “Addiction is a reality and George was, towards the latter part of his career, irretrievably addicted.”

The balance of focus on football and alcoholism throughout the film creates a neutrality which allows for a transparent, emotional and brutally honest re-telling of George Best’s life.

As a fan of football, United and George Best, I was educated.

Gordon expressed in his introduction that the film “would try and understand a character as complex as Best, who was the first celebrity”.

Best will always be a figure of controversy who splits opinion so it is unfair to criticise the film for not solving the problem of George Best- how can you when it is not trying to?

Instead, allow me to express my new perception of Best- as a fan of football, United and George Best, I was educated.

Throughout the film, I was under the impression that Best always needed a target in his life. Clearly Best was a talented football player- he said “I was born with something and didn’t have to work hard at it.”

The 1968 Champions League victory over Benfica was the single greatest achievement for Manchester United in the Sir Matt Busby era but this is a downer for Best.

Best questioned what he would aim for and this is a theme throughout the film. Without another chance to win, Best sought to “replace the excitement for football” through alcoholism.

The goal against Spartans in 1981 offered some form of reward. Best went 11 months sober but, after the awards ceremony, he went on a 22-day ‘bender’. Lack of target, less reason to focus.

Another aspect that stood out was Best’s celebrity status, an image constructed through endless shots of Best with women, adverts by Best and even shots of Best drinking alone.

Best was the first of his type though. Just like Elvis Presley across the pond, Best rose to fame just as colour televisions were being mass-manufactured and was exposed to a nationwide audience.

With no example to follow, Best had also left behind the feeling of home in his Ulster Protestant religion, his family in Belfast and his working-class lifestyle.

As more people relied on him and he turned to alcohol for solutions to his problems, Best lacked respect for anyone to allow them to guide him.

These are a couple of examples of the debates this film can rouse which is a sign of how insightful it really is.

If one thing stood out, it would have to be Best’s solidarity. Despite interviewing so many family and friends, the film never presented anyone who really knew what Best was thinking- perhaps this is a success.

To quote the film, this is the story of “a life of talent darkened by drink”.

It brings home just how good Best was as a football player but also just how destructively he sent himself to the grave with the bottle.

The last words are those McIlvanney told us: “The genius of George as a football is given full expression… but also the sad, sad waste of talent is there for all to see.”

Listen to a post-viewing discussion on 'George Best: All By Himself' with Dr Jon Hackett, Programme Director, Film & Screen Media BA, & Dr Richard Mills, Lecturer, Irish Studies MA, St. Mary's University, Twickenham, here.

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