(another part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series)
I think THIS, moreover is what ESPN’s documentary series was meant to accomplish. Bill Coudurie’s The Guru of Go and Fritz Mitchell’s The Legend of the Jimmy the Greek, for instance, were both fairly routine docs, covering cool subjects, but without necessarily an angle that we have not seen before. But Barry Levinson’s The Band that Wouldn’t Die, is just a better documentary, and the quality of the filmmaker behind it shows. Levinson is hardly unknown – indeed he is one of the most accomplished filmmakers in recent Hollywood whether it be Wag the Dog or Rain Man. However, at least as much as John Waters, Levinson also is a native of Baltimore, and that has been seen in works as varied as Avalon, a couple episodes of the legendary Homicide: Life on the Street, and most famously in the movie that put him (and many others) on the map, Diner.
Knowing this attention to Baltimore, it is not a mystery that like many of his contemporaries, he grew up a huge Baltimore Colts fan, and so for him to make his ESPN piece on the subject of the Colts’ departure to Indianapolis prior to the 1984 season was hardly a stretch. However, that story arc makes for a fairly routine story – and Levinson elevates it through the use of the Baltimore Colts band. The Colts band of course performed at halftime of their games and whatnot … given how it’s 2010, these scenes were almost touchingly retro. I mean, seriously, how often do you see NFL halftime bands? (well the Baltimore Ravens do, but that’s for later) The Colts band moreover had been around since 1947 – essentially the history of the franchise, including being on the sideline when the Colts beat the Giants in the 1958 NFL Title game (the famous “Greatest Game Ever Played”).
Levinson deftly tracks the band’s history in the area (made up of local denizens of course), talking to original band members whenever possible. We learn of the troubled Irsay stewardship of the franchise, Robert Irsay’s own alcoholism and boorishness (including not at all unsympathetic interviews with Irsay’s family – to his credit, his son does not run from the worst), and the ensuing attempts to move without a new stadium. When the big day to move occured (the Colts famously leaving in the middle of the night), the band had to steal the uniforms and hide them, and this is revealed in an entertaining story. Levinson, in having real subjects and a human story, make the connection to the loss of the team real.
Furthermore, as it turns out, the band decides after the team leaves – that they want to stay together. The Colts, in 1983-1984 NFL did not take the band with them. The band stays formed without a team, and still plays. They essentially become barnstormers, playing at NFL venues, being invited by other teams. The symbolism is obvious and Levinson wrings all he can from it. They want football back in Baltimore, and the band is the best ambassador they have.
Of course the band still exists – but how they exist is a bit ironic, given how they took a team. To his credit, Levinson does not shy away from this, and the band members are not callous. But business is business I suppose, and so just be grateful to be a beneficiary. But the band has survived, long after the Baltimore Colts are a memory.