Tuesday, October 13, 2009

30 for 30, "The Band That Wouldn't Die": Let's go, you Colts

Some thoughts on the second "30 for 30" film coming up just as soon as I take your truck for a walk...

Of the four "30 for 30"s I got to see in advance, "The Band That Wouldn't Die" was either my favorite or second favorite (after "Muhammad and Larry"). If you've watched "Diner," or ESPN's recent documentary about the legendary Giants-Colts NFL championship game, you know that the Baltimore Colts are very near and dear to the heart of Barry Levinson(*), and that passion was palpable throughout this movie.

(*) Also, an episode of the Levinson-produced "Homicide: Life on the Street" once opened with the characters being introduced on the field at a game for Baltimore's ignominious CFL franchise. As I recall, Stan Bolander had some choice words to say about Canadian football that several figures in this film would agree with.

As I wrote in my column about the series last week, there are certain bits of footage that remain astonishing no matter how many times you see them, and images of those Mayflower trucks trying to sneak out under cover of snow and darkness certainly qualify. But moving beyond the team's exit, and the general loathing that everyone in Baltimore felt for Robert Irsay - when even your son can only say that you had a hard life and drank too much because of it, you are not a warm and cuddly figure - we have this wonderful, insane, sweet, possibly uplifting story of the Colts band staying together for over a decade after the Irsays skipped town, hoping they could in some way contribute to the arrival of a new team.

I have two issues with the film, neither of which may have been able to be helped. One is that, because it's told primarily from the point of view of the band and its members, it's never really clear how much they actually impacted the chain of events that led to the arrival of the Browns-cum-Ravens, or if this was just some noble tilting at windmills that had an unexpectedly good outcome(*). I'd like to think they really influenced the vote on the stadium funding, but the film doesn't really have any evidence of that, which leads to unfortunate issue #2: because Levinson has no footage of the band on the steps on that pivotal night, the emotional climax of the movie is accompanied by shots of empty streets leading up to the empty steps of the state legislature building. It couldn't be helped if there was no footage (did no news crews come to film the run-up or aftermath of the vote?), but what should have been the film's high point instead felt a little flat.

NOTE: Several readers pointed out that there was news footage of the vote, which means my note-taking wasn't as thorough as it should have been. Mea culpa.

(*) When I wrote in that column that this is the only one of the first four films with a happy ending, some Cleveland Browns rightfully called me on that, and even some Baltimore fans said that this wasn't the ending the city would have preferred - they'd have rather gotten an expansion team instead of stealing another town's team the way theirs was stolen. And that's fair. But Baltimore got a team - one that turned out to be pretty great - Cleveland got a version of the Browns, if not the continuity, and compared to what's going to come in "Muhammad and Larry," this is damn uplifting.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I thought there was film of the band on the steps? Don't they show the mayor standing beside the band as they play? What was that footage from?

I liked this story a lot, but agree with your point about not having a good perspective on the band's actual impact. I liked Kings Ransom, too, but I'm beginning to think that one hour just isn't enough to completely tell the story. It's more like a glimpse at a new angle on something.

Matt in Raleigh said...

They must have found some footage of the statehouse concert after they sent you the screener because it was in there.

Omagus said...

Although I have "King's Ransom" at home on the DVR, this is the first 30 for 30 film that I am seeing. And I was riveted.

I grew up in Dallas-Fort Worth and currently live in Austin (two cities that will almost certainly never have to worry about their primary football teams ever leaving) and I'm just young enough to not have been aware of the details surrounding the departure of the Colts from Baltimore. So there really was not a lot to connect me to the plot. But I was completely caught up in watching.

I agree that the emotional high point fell a little flat due to lack of visuals but I'm almost always willing to accept that as a reality of documentary films.

Alan Sepinwall said...

They must have found some footage of the statehouse concert after they sent you the screener because it was in there.

I'm gonna record the late showing on ESPN2 to be sure. (My screener's out on loan to an editor, but I got the sense they were sending us final cuts of the first four.) It's entirely possible, as I said in the note I amended above, that I was more lax in my note-taking than I should have been.

mark coale said...

As a teenager growing up in MD, I remember the Mayflower moving vans all too well. Also how the TV sportscaster on channel 11 merciless killed Irsay week after week.

Glad Simmons asked Barry about the Wire on his podcast.

TC said...

That press conference footage of a drunken Bob Irsay is stunning, as was his son's story about the night Bob sent him to Indy then forgot about it.

Did anyone else notice the bad flash-frame edit right after William Gildea talking about Loudy's funeral? I scrolled back the DVR thinking maybe my eyes had betrayed me but there were clearly a couple bad frames there. Amazing that a technical error like that would make it to air without anyone catching it.

Anonymous said...

As a native Clevelander, I was immediately inflamed with anger upon seeing Art and David Modell appear on screen and having David Modell glorified for "saving" the band. David Modell was an incompetent Spaulding Smails-esque character known only for his drug problems in Cleveland. It's really really hard for Cleveland fans to watch that and we never should have re-constituted an expansion franchise with the same team and colors. The Ravens are our franchise. Aside from the obvious stomach turning anger about the Ravens portion, I thought it was an awesome doc and better than King's Ransom. I thought the Irsay press conference footage was amazing and it was a great story told by the band members. David Modell should just never be glorified.

Anonymous said...

My favorite piece of trivia about Baltimore is that they stole two teams named the Browns. First the St. Louis Browns, which became the Baltimore Orioles, then the Cleveland Browns nearly 50 years later.

(Native Clevelander here too.)

david said...

As a Browns fan, I simply can't watch this one. Sure I can feel for Baltimore fans, and the fact that they got a happy ending is nice for them, but a great and loyal fan base got screwed in the process and we are still waiting for our happy ending. I will never forget the day it was announced that the Browns were leaving; it was the only time I ever saw my dad cry.

Tina Miles said...

I live in Indy and am a big Colts fan. It was hard to watch this from the prespecctive of us "stealing" the team...or Irsy just look for an out and we were the ones to take them? It was a very interesting documentary and the footage of the vans being loaded in the snow storm, as the team rushed out, was riviting.

ripvanruben said...

In defense of the Orioles, they didn't exactly steal the St. Louis Browns. Bill Veeck was bankrupt and the Cardinals would have been happy to see their local competition fold. And plans were being made to liquidate the Browns players if a buyer wasn't found. Only then did a group from Baltimore come into the picture. Hardly a bitter parallel to the Irsay or Modell moves.

And don't forget Baltimore also lost the Bullets to Washington. And like Cleveland missed out on championship a few years later.

Anyway, I loved this doc It made me hopeful that there will some day be redemption for my own recently stolen Sonics. I highly recommend this documentary on the whole tawdry Sonics affair: http://sonicsgate.org/

ithor6 said...

Being born in 1984, I never knew the Baltimore Colts as a football team, but I sure as hell knew the band and all the words to the fight song.

This documentary really touched me because I grew up seeing that band all around town. To me, the Colts band was just another part of 4th of July, and will forever be linked to my childhood memories of summer.

You will march on to victory...

Anonymous said...

Having lived in Indianapolis during that time, and living in Baltimore now, I have a unique perspective. Indy built the Hoosier Dome on spec with no NFL team in sight, and they had been yanked around by the league. Irsay was the last guy they wanted to get in bed with and his organization was the worst. They were the Dolts. O and forever. Yes, the move was handled poorly, but the city was threatening eminent domain. Attendence was in the toilet, they played at Memeorial Stadium, where a private plane crashed into the upper deck during a game, but since no one was there, no one was hurt.
Indy loved their losers for about 10 years when a change occurred, The Colts drafted Peyton Manning.
The people of Indy felt for Baltimore's loss and were happy when the Browns moved and became the Ravens.
Living here now (although still a Colts fan), I can see the scars have healed, but the wound is still tender. I, for one, am proud to share the John Unitas experience with this great town.
BTW all those Colt's Corrals are Raven's Roosts now.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, this documentary was much better than King's Ransom, and really because Barry Levinson's just that much better than Peter Berg. I think King's Ransom really missed out on what Gretzky's arrival did to the LA Kings in the late 80s early 90s. This, on the other hand, was a more well rounded piece. Of course, it's ironic that Art Modell's as hated in Cleveland as Bob Irsay is in Baltimore. Not to mention, the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns were two of the top 4 franchises in the 50s and 60s. As someone who is only 23, when I think of Baltimore sports, I mostly think of the beautiful camden yards, cal ripken and the O's teams that threatened the yankees. I'm too young to know about this blue collar baltimore, but only know it in lore. I found it very moving how the original colts, Johnny U, Lenny Moore and co, came to embrace the new ravens. In the end, Cleveland did get their team back, sadly they have not been able to build a winner. Amazing that John odgen and ray lewis were drafted the spring that they left Cleveland. despite what previous posters wrote about David and Art Modell, by embracing the legacy of the Baltimore Colts, a team who was clearly so important to its city (dare I say as important as the packers are to Green bay?), the Modells did the right thing and were immediatley able to win back the baltimore fan base. Now, if the NFL can only get a team like the Jaguars, who garner so little support in a college football centric market (unless they keep Tebow local in the draft), to go move to the LA area, all will be right again in the NFL. In terms of 30 for 30, I am personally most interested in seeing Billy Corben's doc on "The U", for two reasons. First, cocaine cowboys was riveting, and two, that era of miami as a place and culture, is also riveting. On a similar note, I can't wait to see Ice Cube's piece on the LA Raiders, and how they related to the gang culture of south central, inglewood compton and watts.

Dan said...

The story of the years between the Colts and Ravens is one of the NFL turning its back on one of its greatest football cities in favor of places like Charlotte and Jacksonville. The film only hints at Tagliabue as the villain in this affair. Regarded by most as a successful commissioner, he is viewed in Bmore as the guy who sneered at them and told them to build a museum because they sure as hell weren't getting a football team under his watch. (Current commissioner Roger Goodell, who worked under Tagliabue at the time, is also partly responsible for this.) How shameful it was that to get a team they had to do to another city exactly what happened to them.

Levinson's film doesn't tell this story because it's limited to 50 minutes or so, and because his focus is on the band (although he alters it slightly to mention the failed bids, then goes back to show the band convincing the state house to vote for the funding--this funding was to show the NFL that we would commit to supporting a new franchise and we failed to get one, so the band's success should be viewed there in terms of a larger failure.) Modell left Cleveland not because of Baltimore's love of the game, but because he had political and financial troubles.

I'm very happy to be a Ravens fan (born after the Colts had left town), but part of me would prefer to have the Colts back so I could have the same team my father and grandfather had. Nevertheless it's better now that the Modells are (mostly) out of the picture, and hopefully the team's unfortunate beginnings fade farther and farther away.

Anonymous said...

First off, this was miles better than 'Kings Ransom'.

Listening throughout the entire piece to how much the Colts meant to these people, I couldn't help thinking about Cleveland and the Browns' fans.

I'm glad that a couple of the Colts Band members had the decency to acknowledge their mixed emotions about the Browns being stolen from Cleveland.

The manner in which the Browns were stolen was 180 degrees from the Colts' situation. The fact is, the city of Baltimore was not supporting the team in a manner that would allow for a competitive team.

Cleveland, on the other hand, consistently sold out their stadium. A stadium, incidentally, which held 81,000 seats to Baltimore's 54,000 seats. And despite Modell's lies, the people and city were prepared to provide a new stadium to his team.

Cleveland was by far the more supportive and loyal fan base and did not deserve what happened to them.

Some may find the passion of the band members admirable. And on some levels I agree. But given the cynical contempt that pro sports franchise owners have for their fans, I find people like the band members to be in large part pathetic.

Pro sports leagues and owners don't care about any of us unless we're emptying our wallets into their cash registers. Our loyalty to these teams is not returned.

I understand the focus of the film to be the remarkable story of the small group of people who kept a part of the civic pride of Baltimore alive. All of us need something to rally around.

I just couldn't stop thinking about how the owners and leagues regard us as suckers.

I wish in some way the film would have discussed this aspect.

Hyde said...

Now that I know the Modells are part of this film, that spares me of the need to ever watch it. No movie that concludes with these idiots being bailed out for their incompetence can ever be said to have a happy ending, notwithstanding my admiration for Barry Levinson and the innocence of the musicians. The Baltimore Ravens are built on a crime.

Shawn Anderson said...

Watching this was hard, having just gone through a similar crime with the Sonics here.

Just saw the new documentary Sonicsgate (now available to see online for free), which, while it doesn't have the clarity of time, it is immediate and sharp. The footage of Clay Bennett and David Stern's press conference is particularly damning. Seeing it felt like ripping off a scab too soon and having it bleed all over again.

Anonymous said...

The plane crashed into Memorial Stadium after the game had ended and the place was mostly cleared out. That's why there was no one in the stands.

Also, Tagliabue is 100% responsible for Cleveland moving to Baltimore because he steered the league into expanding into a city (Jacksonville) that was completely incapable and disinterested in supporting an NFL team. Baltimore the best bid along with Charlotte during the early 90s expansion. Expanding into that space and Cleveland never would have moved to Baltimore.

Jason Bellamy said...

...there are certain bits of footage that remain astonishing no matter how many times you see them, and images of those Mayflower trucks trying to sneak out under cover of snow and darkness certainly qualify.

Well said. I thought this one got a little repetitive near the end, and, upon further review, maybe a little messy with the entry of the Ravens (the band, as much as anything, seems to represent a love of the Colts specifically, not just football).

Yet another anonymous said...

Just a quick thank-you, Alan, for bringing this series to our attention.

This particular 'episode' is still in my DVR, but I finally saw King's Ransom, and thought it compelling.

Looking forward to the Colts!

Anonymous said...

I was six when the Colts played their first game in Bsltimore and clearly remember The Greatest Game Ever Played. I also remember how the team left Baltimore under a cover of darkness and snow.

Baltimore is a blue-collar city. Its fan base, the ons who buy the tickets, lives miles beyond the city limits which made Baltimore a step child when it came to wrangling funds from the DC metro Maryland centric state legislature for errecting a new standium for the Colts.

Unfortunatly, Baltimore was dealing with an unbalanced alcoholic in Irsay, a man who was so unsympathetic that the legislature could hardly see doling out funds to build a stadium to line the pockets of an eratic maniac. No blame should be placed on the citizenry for the team leaving for the plains of Indiana.

As for stealing the team from Cleveland, Modell had for a very long time begged the city and Ohio for funds to replace the dilapidated Cleveland field, and was turned down every time. He was a businessman and needed to find a place for his team in a city and state that would support his investment. How is that any different that what good people in business do everyday?

The difference between Irsay and Modell is as wide as the sun. Irsay took the Colt name and the memorabilia with him when he shamefully crept out in the middle of the night. Modell left all with the city who received a new team shortly after the original departure. Perhaps had Cleveland's fans and the citizens of Ohio seen to it that funds were found to keep the team, the enmity toeard Modell and The Ravens would not have such a grip.

The current Browns are a joke because of poor management. Obviously, the management Modell put in place (Ozzie Newsome, for one) have produced excellent teams and a championship.

bsangs said...

Sorry, but I enjoyed "King's Ransom" much more than this. Call me cold-hearted, but I really couldn't relate with the band members.

I was always fascinated by the fact a team could slink away from an entire city in the dead of night. However, I could care less about its band members. The Baltimore Colts band had nothing to do with the Ravens moving to Baltimore. Nothing. The almighty dollar did.

And to this day, the hypocrisy floors me. The Irsays were portrayed as the dirtiest scum bags in the world for leaving Baltimore. Yet when the Modell's do pretty much the exact same thing to Cleveland, they're hailed as heroes in Ball Mer.

paul said...

Puff, you need to talk to some old-line Baltimore Colts fans to get your facts straight. Irsay starting shopping the team to other cities as far back as the late 1970s. By the time the fans' "nonsupport" occurred, relations between Irsay, the city, and the fans were strained, to say the least. Did you even watch the show? And that plane crash, it occurred in 1976, a season in which the Colts won the AFC East. The stadium was empty because the game had ended.

Indy, as Puff says, built its stadium, without the prospect of a team. It was built for the purpose of stealing a team away from an existing NFL city. If not Baltimore, anyone else's team would have done just as nicely.

Anonymous said...

Some other facts:

The city of Cleveland built a new stadium for the Indians, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a new arena for the Cavaliers. Yet refused to build try to build a new stadium for the Browns despite the fact that they played in what was universally considered the worst non-Vet stadium in the NFL.

Why wouldn't Modell leave then?

rhamilton said...

A little bit sad the way even the comments on this blog devolve into ire amongst working-class sports fans of different working-class cities.

No one else forces us to get our hopes and aspirations mixed up with the financial affairs of millionaires and billionaires. As Levinson shows, here, I think, some beauty can come from the derangement. But when one's heart gets broken, it's hard to blame anyone but himself, or whoever taught him to live life by a team.

Or, if you'd like to pick someone to get angry at, there are almost always a few callous capitalists that'll serve. There's never any reason to resent the good people of Baltimore or Cleveland or Indianapolis.

And to be fair, those of us Indiana -based Colt fans had to wait almost as long as Baltimore for an Actual Football Team.

paul said...

I had thought this documentary to be effective as it brought back all the old emotions; I was almost as sick watching Irsays' drunken press conference as when I saw it 25 years ago. But after reading the "hypocrisy" posters, it should have more fully developed the mixed emotions that greeted the Ravens' arrival. Levinson touched on this, but maybe it didn't come across. The feelings of old Colts fans towards the Ravens are very complicated, to say the least. As I said in post on last week's column, we did not want to take another city's team. Even now, people my generation and older would love to get our Colts name and records back. For the same reason, Baltimore's relationship with Modell is decidedly mixed.

There were many other things that happened after the Colts left that were insulting to Colts fans that also couldn't be developed without a much longer documentary. The NFL decided we were really Redskins "fans," and the Redskins ownership strived mightily to keep a new team out of Baltimore. Irsay backed out of his promise to vote for an expansion team for Baltimore. As an anonymous poster said, Baltimore should have gotten a team in the 1993 expansion, having the best bid along with Charlotte (with St Louis at #3). However, Tagliabue adjourned the voting so that Jacksonville could put together a new proposal. And so on.

One thing that bothered me is that Levinson gave the impression that the band showed up on the statehouse steps just before the Ravens came to town. That happened back in the 1980s when the legislature was voting on the Camden Yards complex -- about 10 years before the Ravens came to town. The idea was to have stadium funding lined up prior to the next NFL expansion, which occurred in 1993. When that expansion passed over Baltimore, the stadium deal was too attractive for Modell to pass up.

As I said in my post last week, I feel terrible for the fact that Baltimore got the Ravens at the expense of Cleveland. But that is tempered somewhat by the way in which the NFL bent over backwards to get Cleveland a new Browns with all the old records intact. Baltimore's treatment at the hands of that smarmy ass Tagliabue was far different.

Dave said...

One thing that really bothered me about the film was Levinson's (whose feature work I love) seeming inability to show, not tell. Not only did he use the above-mentioned zoomy, empty courthouse stairs b-roll footage when what appeared to be perfectly serviceable news footage of the event existed, but how many of the talking heads spoke of the power, the beauty, the inspiration of the Colts fight song? And we hear it in it's entirety.....ZERO TIMES. In fact, we never get more than a bar or two before it's covered up by another talking head letting us know how great the song is. You're telling me that in a 50 minute documentary about the power of one band and their song (a documentary that included at least two minutes of stock drumline footage) you couldn't have squeezed in a 45 second fight song?

Steve said...

Both Cleveland and Baltimore lost their NFL teams. There is one big difference though. Cleveland got their NFL team back after a couple of years and Baltiore did not until 12 yrs later. Cleveland also got their colors back due to the "generousity" of THE MODELLS.

Irsay did not have the "class" to do that. Cleveland STILL has the records in the HOF but Baltimore does not.

So Cleveland... enough of the complaining. Move on,Baltimore did!