Best (George Best: All By Himself)

Though arguably too linear in scope, the latest chronicle of our greatest footballing talent's tragic journey is nonetheless elegantly and fearlessly told

Rarely has a life been riper for examination than that of George Best. A footballing prodigy at the age of 15, a member of Manchester United’s first team two years later, Best bestrode the zeitgeist for a time that far outstripped the duration of his glorious peak. A clearly tortured individual, blessed with the looks and ability for which others would happily kill, this was a person from whom the world could barely turn its gaze.

Director Daniel Gordon brings this narrative to the fore in Best, his elegant and comprehensive meditation on the human cost of unfettered genius. Created in concert with producer Trevor Birney (Bobby Sands: 66 Days), Gordon’s documentary ranges from the player’s early existence in the fresh-faced 1960s to the boozy twilight years. Unafraid of facing the source of Best’s torment, namely alcohol and depression, this is a film presenting Belfast’s most famous son in the various shades that would define him.

The operatic trappings of sport are never far beneath its surface. Having already studied those overlaps in Hillsborough9.79* (an ESPN title focusing on the doping scandal at the Seoul Olympics) and a series of pictures looking at North Korea’s sporting heritage, Gordon finds a great deal of drama in Best’s tale. He was an unworldly boy plucked from the unassuming environs of the Cregagh estate and transplanted into the high-stakes world of English football. Yet, such were his gifts, that success and adulation soon flowed, a host of personal testimonies from friends and teammates speaking to unparalleled, ethereal skills.

Indeed, archive footage of his myriad achievements still thrills. From those first moments under the grand eaves of Old Trafford, Best stood above his peers. He tore through the firmament, a whir of motion, his legs carrying him across the rutted turf of another era as if he were mercury on a glass pane. There was bubbling confidence, also, checked from becoming a swagger by his humble, sensible upbringing. Grizzled veterans like Mike Summerbee, Pat Crerand and Harry Gregg relay their recollections with eyes wide and hands to their faces, even now unable to process much of what they once saw in the flesh.

Gordon gives Best’s accomplishments their due. His goals, his trophies – reaching a swift zenith with United’s victory over Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final – are to be admired; they are tangible examples of something the man himself would so often seem unable to properly articulate. 

It is one of the more cruel tragedies of Best’s journey, then, that its latter half should be marked not so much by his exploits on the pitch as it was by the detritus beyond the white lines.

The seeds of his downfall are chronicled early on, his entrance into the world of celebrity – he was, after all, ‘El Beatle’ – an accident waiting to happen considering his callow nature and the lack of savvy exhibited by those around him. The debilitating darkness that channelled him towards the bottle and a dissolute lifestyle ideally suited to those who are not professional athletes soon becomes its own character.

Buffeted by a culture where non-clinical discussions of mental ill health were taboo, it was, tellingly, Best himself who addressed his own issues with the articulate, honest clarity for which he was renowned. Frank discussions of alcoholism, of the demons that demanded it and ultimately ended him, remained a hallmark of his adult life. Many did reach out, there can be no doubt, but one wonders how a similarly talented modern equivalent might fare.

And overlaying it all is Best, a quasi-narrator thanks to the audio recordings that Gordon weaves into this tapestry. For someone so altered by the sad direction of his life, Best remained surprisingly optimistic, that other essential ingredient, football, sending him to destinations unworthy of his singular brilliance.

Best Film Poster Peter Strain

Poster artwork by Belfast illustrator Peter Strain

If anything, however, Best is arguably too fixated on its own subject. The film is no cloying paean, but the charges of domestic abuse, easily lost in the clamour to elevate him (certainly from a local point of view), are bleaker tenets of this character that bear substantial inquiry.

Equally, his legacy feels surprisingly murky. Pelé was once reported to have christened him the world’s greatest, a salute that sounds sincere given the widely held belief that Best, along with a handful of peers including the mighty Brazilian, sit on an especially gilded level within football’s pantheon. Failing to explore his place in the beautiful game, a global pursuit that continues to transform and offer joy to millions, appears parochial at the very least.

Not one to be found wanting for quips, Best famously opined ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I just squandered.’ It’s a clever line, but that’s all it is.

Best (George Best: All By Himself) is in cinemas across Northern Ireland from February 24. Visit www.georgebestfilm.com/showtimes to book tickets for showings in Belfast, Newry and Derry~Londonderry.