Pelé (3 stars)

Pelé

Absorbing yet overly deferential documentary about the titular sporting icon

A footballing legend and cultural phenomenon is partially illuminated in this glossy and captivating but sometimes not quite interrogatory enough film from Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn (the producer and director of Crossing the Line). Taking us from impoverished beginnings to a level of superstardom that's mindboggling, even by today's standards, it shows how Brazilian icon Pelé's ground-breaking sporting achievements were sometimes eclipsed by his status as a celebrity.

Beginning at the end of his golden era, with references to what was at stake at the 1970 Mexico World Cup, the film then flashes back to where it all started and we see Pelé go from shoe-shiner to signing for Santos aged just 15. And it's not long before it gets round to his incredible entrance as a footballer on the international stage. That was during the 1958 Sweden World Cup, where the 17-year-old scored six goals during a campaign which ended with Brazil lifting the trophy for the first time in history.

With the help of a well-informed array of contributors – Pelé's teammates, managers and family, alongside politicians and journalists – the film is very good at showing how the success of the national team and the admiration of Pelé in particular helped put Brazil on the map, and changed the national character to one of collective self-belief. It also covers the worsening political climate, with a 1964 coup marking the end of democracy and ushering in two decades of military rule.

There's emotion relating to the disappointment of the 1966 World Cup, which Pelé watches back, and relief that he was able to end his international career on a high, but away from the subject of football he exhibits less frankness as an interviewee and it can feel frustrating. For example, his determination to paint himself as humble, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary makes him seem disingenuous, while Nicholas and Tryhorn never really dig into what that level of hero-worship would have done to a young man.

The pair do make some cursory efforts to challenge Pelé about why he never spoke out against the military dictatorship during the height of his success, contrasting him with another sporting star of that era, the charismatic and fearless Muhammad Ali, and the film does feature a couple of critical voices. Yet with Pelé reluctant to jeopardise his carefully cultivated myth and wall-to-wall adulation otherwise, it can come across like a hagiography. Watching clips of Pelé playing football is still out-of-this-world but this documentary has perhaps traded access to its subject for a too-cautious approach to examining his flaws.

Available to watch on Netflix from Tue 23 Feb.

Pelé

  • 3 stars
  • 2021
  • UK
  • 1h 48min
  • Directed by: Ben Nicholas, David Tryhorn
  • Cast: Pelé
  • UK release: 23 February 2021

A documentary on the extraordinary 12-year rise of footballer Pelé, from young superstar to national hero during one of the most turbulent eras in Brazil's history.