Home Blog Netflix shows David Beckham remains a rare celebrity sportsperson somehow untainted by the experience – The Globe and Mail

Netflix shows David Beckham remains a rare celebrity sportsperson somehow untainted by the experience – The Globe and Mail

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David Beckham attends the Netflix U.K. Premiere of Beckham at The Curzon Mayfair on Oct. 3, in London, England.Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
We live in the great age of phoniness. That’s not to say the world hasn’t been overrun by phoneys since the dawn of time, but that technology has made them unavoidable.
The ubiquity of phoniness has had two effects – making it permissible (e.g. reality TV) and making regular people phoniness bloodhounds (e.g. reality TV viewers).
Just about every canned interaction in sports is phony. The manager telling the hallway interviewer he thinks the team did some good things despite being four goals behind; the player who says he isn’t bothered that his teammate makes three times as much as he does; the play-by-play guy and the colour guy guffawing like donkeys at each other’s ‘jokes.’
Every time anyone in sports says anything into a microphone there is an obvious and off-putting element of artifice to it.
Except when it comes to David Beckham.
For an athlete so gigantically famous, his sporting résumé is a bit thin. Forget about best in the world – Beckham wasn’t the best on his own teams. His England side did nothing but disappoint. He retired early to go panning for gold in California.
So why is his celebrity so resilient?
It is in part the good looks and the even more famous wife and the early commitment to branding every single thing about himself. But mostly it is, I suspect, because Beckham is real.
Netflix just dropped a four-hour docuseries about the man and his life. They’re referring to it as ‘Season 1,′ which sounds like a threat.
Though the entertainment press has gone truffling through it for the greasy bits about Beckham’s sex life, the tone is one of extreme wholesomeness. You’re left with the sense that Beckham is a very decent guy who is well liked by everyone.
You can fake that. Not so easily that most people are fooled, but it can be done.
What lends Beckham an air of genuineness is that he will say things nobody says these days.
Here he is on himself as a student: “I never did well at school. I wasn’t intelligent. Surprise surprise.”
This isn’t said in a jesting way. It’s tinged with sadness and pride, like a man who’s overcome something.
A lot of celebs will announce they weren’t good at school, but there’s always an excuse attached. Here’s just one willing to provide the most obvious reason – that he is dull witted.
Beckham wasn’t popular (“I never had many friends”). His own mom didn’t rate him as a social animal (“He never went out at night”).
All he cared about was sport. When he made it, the first thing he did was buy a bunch of junk. He gleefully recounts spending every pay cheque on cars and clothes.
When the money wasn’t coming in fast enough, he began to sell his image to anyone who’d fork over a few bucks. There is a cringe-inducing sequence in the first episode that charts the ancient history of viral marketing – Beckham, looking like he’s gotten dressed in the dark, sitting awkwardly in a barber’s chair to promote Brylcreem.
“Sit up straight, David!” a photographer yells at him. Beckham sheepishly complies.
When he talks about his wife, there is still a panting, teenage edge to his tone. In one instance, he recalls spending hours on the phone with the former Spice Girl night after night.
What did you talk about, the narrator asks.
“I dunno,” Beckham says, taken aback by the question. “Have you never done that though? Early on in a relationship?”
“No,” says the narrator. Beckham looks confused.
There is nothing new or penetrating in any of this. Aside from the now obligatory nod to personal troubles and mental-health challenges, this could have been made any time since the dawn of TV. The only thing that makes Beckham in any way remarkable is that it reveals a creature not thought possible – a celebrity sportsperson who remains untainted by the experience.
It is difficult now to recall just how big a deal he was, just as the internet had become the primary conduit of global communication. From the late nineties into the middle aughts, Beckham was the most recognizable person in the world. But it didn’t end up the way people hoped. Beckham didn’t win a World Cup, or transform the game in North America, or become a sporting saint like Pele or Muhammad Ali.
He won trophies, but so did lots of other people. Beckham’s great achievement may be marrying someone who shares his interest in expensive things, but has more of an idea about how to get them. His role is to flash that smile and be authentic.
In this case, ‘authentic’ is not synonymous with admirable or good. Beckham is a bit of a dim bulb whose most passionate pursuit in life is money.
The crucial difference between Beckham and his peers is that he will say that – “I like nice stuff.” He says while sitting unironically in his $20-million cottage talking about being “working class.” His trick – that he gets on some level that this doesn’t make him in on the joke. It makes him the joke.
He seems like the kind of guy you’d love to have as a neighbour, but he’s not a role model. No one with sense would want their children to emulate him – obsess over an unobtainable goal and then, having won the lottery, leverage your new power to sell tourists on Qatar. It seems an awful waste of influence. Still – very 21st century.
Beckham and his family are producers and customers of the most pornographic brand of consumerism. However, the show is blessedly free of one single instance of justification for it. No banging on about climate change or equality. They like stuff. End of.
If the revolution comes, it will be documentaries like Beckham that start it.
But nowhere do you get the sense from Beckham that any of this is contrived. Unlike modern American presidents, he cannot tell a lie. Even ones that would save him from looking silly.
For that reason alone, David Beckham stands above the rest.
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