Unlike most people who are famous for being famous, David Beckham had a real job. And he was pretty good at it. Not least because the former England captain’s free-kicks were almost as bewitching as his smile. ‘Beckham’, a four-part documentary on Netflix directed by Fisher Stevens, traces the journey of its eponymous protagonist from a gifted footballer to a global celebrity, showing how one of the top athletes in his sport retained his “love for the game” long after his feet became the least talked about parts of his body. Combining a compelling cast of characters with a camera that goes closer to Becks than most defenders did, ‘Beckham’ is a story of two halves. The first is a rollicking ride wherein a shy kid from London emerges as an icon in Manchester, polarising and uniting his country with his mercurial abilities. The second, though, feels more like an extended commercial, a borderline hagiography that is more interested in the star than the man Beckham evolves into.
A family called Manchester United
Episodes one and two of ‘Beckham’ are devoted to understanding how Manchester United, the club Beckham’s father loved more than him, effectively functioned as a family for one of England’s generational talents. A refuge from tabloids, traumas and the traumas inflicted by tabloids, under the paternal guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson. It helps that Ferguson shows up to tell his own parts of the tale, frequently and hilariously contradicting Beckham.
From the halfway-line goal against Wimbledon that made him an overnight sensation at age 21 to his infamous red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup – with antagonist Diego Simeone confessing on Fisher’s camera with a disarming grin that Becks should never have been red-carded for the ‘imaginary kick’! – to the dream treble run with United in 1999, there is enough material here for two full-length feature films.
While few football fans need a history lesson on Beckham’s inflection points with United and England, the retelling of the highlights makes for first-class fun. There is poignant bluntness from Beckham’s parents (giving the documentary much of its emotional quotient), characteristic wisdom from Eric Cantona (though the editing does weird things to his face), the understated presence of the mail receptionist at Man Utd, and a match-winning turn from Gary Neville, the self-proclaimed “side dish” who is no less watchable than on a Sky Sports broadcast.
All this, of course, is shaped and structured around Beckham’s high-octane romance with Victoria Adams, one-fifth of the Spice Girls. It is endearing to see Becks and Posh recap their love story while cheekily roasting one another (at one stage, Beckham makes Victoria admit that her ‘working-class’ father owned a Rolls-Royce!). It is equally unnerving to realise just how obsessed the British media were with the couple and how two brothers from the paparazzi (who have also been interviewed) chased Beckham and Victoria wherever they went. The enduring impression from the first two episodes is one of Beckham, Victoria and Manchester United against the world, which, sensational as it seems, feels sincere.
Spreading stardust from Madrid to LA, Milan to Paris
In an ironic imitation of Beckham, his documentary peaks too early. By the time the third episode is done dissecting the boot (belonging to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, we get to know here) Ferguson inadvertently kicked at Beckham, the drama of the Beckham journey allows more style than substance. The narrative takes a back seat as a roll call of footballing royalty takes over. Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo (yes, the Brazilian OG), among others, lavish enough praise on Beckham to write him the world’s longest letter of recommendation. Then, Florentino Perez, football’s greatest impresario, says: “David Beckham was born to play for Real Madrid.”
As opposed to his time at United, where the simmering subplot of Beckham being a fashionable rebel to Ferguson’s decidedly unfashionable ringmaster was both incredible and intimate, Beckham’s spell in Madrid barely scratches the surface of powerful storytelling. Frustratingly, Beckham’s own comments feel more and more rehearsed and repetitive. Victoria is parachuted into the story at convenient junctures to speak of the hassles of a life on the move, but the emotional arc of the Beckhams feels more wayward than a diagonal pass into the stands.
The final episode, tasked with completing the Beckham timeline in Madrid, Los Angeles, Milan and Paris as well as initiating his foray into Miami as a businessman, buckles under the weight of constant shifts. Before we can find out whether Beckham regretted leaving the Spanish capital, he is in Hollywood. Before we can know if Beckham felt moving to Major League Soccer (MLS) was premature, he is back in Europe, with AC Milan, before returning to the US. Before we can ask if LA got more out of Becks than Becks did out of LA, our man is in Paris. As a result, Victoria is not the only one left exasperated.
Who is the real David Beckham?
We live in times when celebrities mostly control how much they share with us and when. On Instagram alone, Beckham has more followers than there will ever be viewers of his documentary. In this context, a great documentary on someone as celebrated as Beckham is one that should probe for the man beneath the star, the person beyond the pomp. While Fisher Stevens seems to start out with that mission, he gives it up the moment Beckham and his fabled right foot step out of Manchester, pandering to Beckham more than he panders to Logan Roy (as Hugo on HBO’s Succession).
For his part, Fisher is not done any favours by Beckham himself. For all his charm, Beckham is not a natural talker. As illustrated by his answer to the most important questions: “I don’t know”. Beckham’s guardedness, whether conscious or otherwise, means it is left to Victoria, fitting as it is, to add the spice. Posh does so brilliantly, from admitting to wanting to kill the paparazzi to calling Glenn Hoddle (former coach of Beckham for the England team) an “old person” instead of a “man”, from exposing the internalised misogyny in the media (crowned by The Sun’s deliciously wicked headline – ‘Too Posh to Push’ – when she goes in for a C-section) to putting up a candid but strong front on the question of Beckham’s extramarital affair in Madrid. In case you are wondering, Fisher never asks Beckham if the affair actually happened, perhaps sparing Golden Balls the embarrassment of saying “I don’t know” once more.
Despite its moments of wholesome entertainment, ‘Beckham’ fails to answer the question of who Beckham really is. Of what defines someone who cannot go a day without being in the limelight. Light-hearted moments with his children or a 360 degree examination of his closet can only go so far. The truth about Beckham, much like his sublime free-kicks and crosses, remains untouchable.