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30 For 30: "The Band That Wouldn't Die"

Illustration for article titled 30 For 30: "The Band That Wouldn't Die"
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Two episodes of 30 for 30 are down now, and both episodes have been about small cities finding themselves distraught when a sporting monolith central to the city’s cultural identity leaves. Where “Kings Ransom” ended with ambivalence and a sense that Wayne Gretzky had some regret that he’d left Edmonton, “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” ends on a note of something approaching happiness for the people of Baltimore, if not for the people of Cleveland whom they inadvertently ended up treating to the same thing they had to live through when the NFL’s  Colts decamped for Indianapolis. You’ve seen the footage of this – of moving vans trying to get the Colts moved to Indiana in the middle of a snowy night before anyone can figure out what happened – before, but it remains haunting in its late night shadows and its complete misreading of a town and its team.

Baltimore is unlike Edmonton in that it has another professional sports franchise and, indeed, one that’s been pretty successful over the years in the Baltimore Orioles (though it’s been a good long while since they were anything to write home about). But the Colts were different, both in how they brought Baltimore its first sports superstar in Johnny Unitas and in the way that the franchise’s success brought respect to the city that was constantly comparing itself to New York, Washington and Philadelphia and finding itself wanting. There’s been quite a bit of great art wandering out of Baltimore in the last few years – not least of which is David Simon’s towering story of the death of an American city, The Wire – but much of it has had the name Barry Levinson on it somewhere. Hell, Levinson, who got his start with the great, Baltimore-set Diner, even launched Simon to prominence by signing on as an executive producer for the series Homicide: Life on the Street, based on Simon’s book. Levinson’s film directing career has headed off into oblivion as of late, but his dedication to the city of Baltimore remains, and it’s that dedication that makes “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” such a nice little documentary.

“The Band That Wouldn’t Die” works so well because it finds such a neat hook to build its story around. It’s not merely the story of how the city reacted to losing its storied, Super Bowl-winning franchise, nor is it the story of how the city attracted another dying city’s team away and subsequently saw that team win a Super Bowl. All of that is in the piece, but the spine of the thing is based around, of all things, a marching band. The Baltimore Colts Marching Band somehow managed to stay in operation after the Colts left and turned into one of the leading PR lights in bringing football back to the city. Levinson probably tries a little too hard to make the band the sole reason football returned to the city, but he digs up plenty of great footage of the group marching at other NFL events, at other games, at the state Capitol when a bill pivotal to the future of football in Maryland is in danger of failing.

Where “Kings Ransom” occasionally tried a little too hard to be the story of one man trying to find his place in two communities, “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” is an affectionate portrait of a city as a community and a smaller, literal band as a community within that community. Levinson’s sense of the pulse of Baltimore is, as always, dead on, and the various people he interviews, from former politicians to marching band members to Baltimore residents, give a vivid sense of a place that came up against a huge loss and just refused to move on to the acceptance stage of the grieving process. (Also of note is footage of Baltimore losing out to Jacksonville, Fla., in the 1993 NFL expansion, especially as Jacksonville’s franchise’s woes may lead to another football-less U.S. city getting a team again if the constant rumors of the Jaguars moving to Los Angeles are at all accurate.) What’s best about “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” is the way it orients the audience in all of these communities, making them a part of Baltimore’s sadness or the joy of playing in the band by proxy.

It also helps that the story of football’s disappearance and subsequent reappearance in Baltimore has so many bizarre ins and outs. The Canadian Football League even gets involved for a while – making Baltimore the only city on Earth to have an NFL championship, a Super Bowl championship, a USFL championship and a Grey Cup – and the various legal maneuverings within the Annapolis-based legislature manage to both be perfectly articulated and not so Byzantine that the episode bogs down in talk of them. And the various band members make for some great characters to be at the story’s center. Plus, this is one of the few stories in this initial set of episodes to have something approaching a happy ending (though not for Cleveland), since the Browns head to Baltimore to become the Ravens and the band manages to convert easily enough into a marching band for the new team.

I’ve watched “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” a number of times now, and it remains just as pleasurable every time. There’s something about its evocation of a particular corner of America, of a city that somehow becomes more football crazy after its team leaves, that sticks around after the hour is over. Levinson has somehow taken a story that must have been much more complex than it seems here and condensed it into the story of one group of people who banded together and kept a tradition that probably should have died alive. Sports are, in some ways, about keeping old things alive, about believing just as much in traditions and history as in the present and future. Concern over performance-enhancing drugs in sport obviously has to do with the players cheating or being inadequate role models, but it also has, at some core level, something to do with the fact that to allow those drugs into the game somehow invalidates the past – when such things weren’t available – to a small degree. You can long for the world that was, but you can never quite catch up to it because it’s receding from you even as fast as you rush toward it. “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” works so well because it understands this better than most would, because it knows just why a grown man cries when he hears the Baltimore Colts fight song.

Stray observations:

  • Next week: the long death of the USFL, and someone new will be covering the show. Hopefully, I’ll be back a few more times as the season goes on, but if this is it for now, it’s been a pleasure christening this section of the TV Club’s coverage.
  • Not to turn this into the “Todd VanDerWerff has odd personal connections to the entirety of 20th century sporting history” column or anything, but I dated a girl in high school whose dad had been at the famous 1958 NFL championship game, the game so vividly remembered here and the one that put the NFL on the map as a national league and not just a regional one. He was a young kid when he went, but his memories of it seemed just as vivid as something he’d seen the day before. One of the things I appreciated about this film was the way it made clear that, in some ways, the Colts became victims of their own success.