A docuseries that could have been a deep dive into soccer superstar David Beckham’s fame and frailties delivers very little other than celebrity interviews and slick montages. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Does the Beckham docuseries kick any goals?
One of the world’s most-watched TV series right now opens with David Beckham tending to his beehives, then proudly sharing some of its honey with his friend – who also happens to be his interviewer and the documentary’s maker, Fisher Stevens. Hilariously, for the brand- and fashion-obsessed Beckham, even his bee suit is not free from his monogram: on the suit’s breast, embroidered with golden thread, are his hallowed initials.
As Beckham jokes about potential names for the honey – he likes “Golden Bees”, his wife, Victoria, prefers “DB’s Sticky Stuff” – the scene serves as an early promise to the viewer: that this man of infinite glamour will be intimately revealed. But by the end of its five hours, which grow increasingly sluggish and superficial, the honey proves to be less a promise than a symbol for the documentary itself: a sweet and syrupy thing made by others but upon which Beckham will stamp his brand.
Beckham’s first two episodes are its best, in places lingering patiently upon some of the defining dramas of its subject’s early career. But before those lows must come the rise. And so, from Beckham’s debut as a 17-year-old for Manchester United in 1992 to his brilliantly cheeky goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon four years later, the early triumphs of our lad are presented in a thrilling montage set to Oasis’s “Supersonic”.
Gratuitously, Joy Division/New Order’s Peter Hook is conscripted briefly to testify to the cultural soulfulness of Manchester at the time, and the fact that soccer players were eclipsing its rock stars as its brightest icons. Hook obligingly mentions the city’s fabled Haçienda nightclub, but his appearance, which is laughably perfunctory, is more significant for what it reveals about the documentary-maker: availing himself of Beckham’s contacts, Stevens prefers a dense concentration of celebrities to anything resembling a serious conversation with any of them. Volume, not quality, is the order of the day.
But there’s value in what follows, and the series benefits from spending time with it: Beckham’s notorious “kick” of ’98. Beckham debuted for England in ’96, during his country’s qualifiers for the following year’s World Cup in France. He was 21. His domestic fame was ubiquitous at this point, and his courtship with Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams generated breathless – and highly profitable – tabloid attention. His experiments with clothing and hairstyles made news; he spent money enthusiastically; and the ensuing circus creased the brows of his conservative managers.
England qualified for France ’98, and what we realise now is Beckham’s public persona, coupled with the national manager’s public scepticism of his commitment, helped prime the English public for the damaging hysteria that followed.
England’s manager Glenn Hoddle had benched Beckham for the first two games – painfully, DB tells us – but he was picked for the starting 11 for the match against Colombia, which England had to draw or win to progress from their group. They won 2-0, the second goal a Beckham free kick special.
And so, the Three Lions faced rivals Argentina in the round of 16. Beckham started. At the beginning of the second half, with the score 2-2, Argentina’s Diego Simeone crashed cynically into the back of Beckham and flattened him. While lying face down, Beckham raised his leg to lightly kick – or graze – his aggressor. Simeone, who still relishes his role as pantomime villain 25 years later, milked the contact and stumbled theatrically backwards before falling. The game’s laws treat retaliation severely and, while Beckham’s action was trivial, the referee sent him from the pitch: England would play most of the second half a man down.
It remained 2-2 after full-time. And still again after extra time. Penalties it was. Goodbye, England. Glenn Hoddle was interviewed after the game. What was the significance of Beckham’s red card? “It cost us,” he said. “It’s cost us dearly.”
Hoddle – who doesn’t appear before the cameras in this series – was speaking plainly. In this moment, he gave raw voice to his feelings. Perhaps, in the moment, it was forgivable in that he couldn’t see what was about to come. And to be fair to Hoddle, nor could Beckham, his wife or most of his teammates.
But Beckham’s loss of Hoddle’s voice – his reflections a quarter-century later about how he failed to defend his young player – is a significant one. I suspect Beckham’s profile – the photographs of him wearing a sarong, bleaching his hair or walking red carpets with his pop-star girlfriend – had already primed a public for blaming his supposed frivolousness in their moment of hysterical pain.
The evidence is that as vain as Beckham was, he was also fanatically committed and unusually resilient. But the popular trope after the Argentina game was that he was a petulant boy, and treasonously distracted by fame. His own team manager, before and after the Argentina match, intensified this belief.
And so Beckham’s slight, but arguably consequential, act of indiscipline conjoined with the intense pain of the English public, which demanded a singular cause for it. Thus, the cause for England’s grievously broken heart was David fucking Beckham – that vain and dissolute playboy – and great vengeance was brought upon his head.
The public vilification was unhinged. For many months Beckham was ridiculed by columnists, cartoonists, TV pundits. He was harassed in the street, spat upon and abused. His mates chaperoned him to toilets, lest he be assaulted in the cubicles. Effigies of him swinging from a noose were erected outside pubs. When the domestic season began, away crowds were unified in their contempt – thousands of giant red cards were handed out to fans to wave and several terrace songs, their themes devoted to Beckham’s moral and sexual inferiority, were sung. He was, for a time, the most hated man in the country.
Beckham became anxious, depressed, withdrawn. He felt he’d let down his country, his family, his intense and unforgiving father. He went for long drives at night. He sought refuge in the United States with the travelling Spice Girls. He wondered how he might get up and go to training. “This might be what celebrity obsession is: watching and waiting for them to get all the usual things wrong, but on a monstrous scale,” British author Jenny Diski wrote in a 2007 essay about Princess Diana. The People’s Princess had died 10 years earlier, chased by paparazzi, and was martyred in a giant haze of public sentimentality created by many who’d bought magazines and newspapers for the Di pics. Beckham’s vilification felt like an unacknowledged inversion of the same hysteria.
Beckham gives a sense of both the weirdness of that time and the very real, private and unglamorous pains of it. But as a piece of entertainment, this series has no interest in exploring the humid fantasia of British soccer fandom – and the vexed participation of Beckham within it, a man who courted, profited from and was damaged by the madness. Interviews with two paparazzi brothers, who casually share their photo albums of stolen snaps of Beckham and his newborn, are effectively putty between scenes – there is almost no interest in properly questioning them, or Beckham, about the tabloid market.
But here, I could certainly feel great sympathy for Beckham: the love that he received – at least from his father, the public, and his managers at both club and country levels – was severely conditional. What does this do to a young man?
As a boy, there was little he could do that would encourage his father’s tender acknowledgment. Today, his father sees the triumphant conclusion of his severe behaviour; the son sees the interpersonal scars. What happens when a father, who has withheld from his son demonstrations of love so that he might better achieve greatness, remains silent when his son has achieved it?
As good as Beckham was, he could always be – and was – scorned or rejected by those closest to him. His personal value was narrowly defined but heavily scrutinised. The public turned, brutally and irrationally, and eventually his own surrogate father, Sir Alex Ferguson, his Manchester United manager, traded him without bothering to inform the man whom he’d mentored since the age of 15. Turns out, it’s business after all.
Meanwhile, Beckham’s father, who Becks says was obsessive in his dream of having a child play for Man U, appears awkwardly in this series – remote, cold and implacably reticent about his son.
The docuseries is, ultimately, profoundly shallow – its incuriosity glossed by artful montages and a chorus of celebrities. And should we be surprised? Its subject has spoken of his OCD tendencies before, and he displays them here. We see his immaculate kitchen, watch him wipe down his beloved grill, look on as he shows Stevens his impeccably ordered wardrobe and the rack upon which he’s laid out the next week’s outfits. “It’s tiring,” he admits of his obsessiveness.
Throughout, Beckham mentions the words “safe” and “control” a lot, and we can only assume this very safe documentary – made by a friend and produced by Beckham himself – was made with the full control of its subject.
When Beckham moved to Real Madrid in 2003, the number he’d worn at United had been taken by the team’s captain. And so, Beckham chose Michael Jordan’s No. 23 – “I’d always been a huge fan of Michael Jordan and I’ve loved him as a player and a person,” he said later.
With this documentary, he’s again emulated MJ by producing – like 2020’s The Last Dance – a delicious, well-made, and thoroughly compromised piece of hagiography that critics and the public have adored.
Back of the net.
Beckham is streaming on Netflix.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Fool’s gold".
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