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Viewer Guide: Brian’s Song and Wah-Wah

September 18, 2020 | Richard Peña


Brian’s Song (1971)

This week’s classic is Brian’s Song, the 1971 biographical sports drama adapted from Gale Sayers’ autobiography I AM THIRD, directed by Buzz Kulik.

Still ranking as one of the top “male weepies” or “guy cry” movies of all time, Brian’s Song dramatizes the true story of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, fellow teammates for the Chicago Bears in the late 1960s. Played by James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, Piccolo and Sayers’ interracial friendship became a cultural breakthrough for an era in professional sports that was still early on in the long process of racial integration. The pair first meet when Sayers arrives as a rookie running back at the Bears’ training camp, with the affable Piccolo stepping forward to welcome the reserved Sayers to the team. A spontaneous bond begins to form—one that’s honed with some mutual hazing pranks. Their connection deepens further when Sayers’ agrees to be Piccolo’s roommate, despite the public hostility that could follow. But when Sayers’ meteoric rise is jeopardized by a serious knee injury, Piccolo proves his loyalty with some tough love to support his rehabilitation—a debt Sayers will eventually struggle against all odds to repay when the two friends are confronted by the unthinkable.

Also featured are Jack Warden as Bears Coach George Halas, Bernie Casey as the Bears’ J.C. Caroline and Shelley Fabares and Judy Pace as Joy Piccolo and Linda Sayers. And keep an eye for cameo appearances by various Chicago Bears stars of the early 70s including linebacker Dick Butkus. Take a moment to make sure that box of Kleenex is handy, especially for whenever Michel Legrand’s famous theme song begins to swell on the soundtrack.

Premiering as an ABC Movie of the Week in November of 1971, Brian’s Song proved to be such an unprecedented ratings success that Columbia Pictures later released the film for brief runs in movie theaters. Although James Caan was reportedly reluctant to take on another TV project, preferring instead to focus on theatrical films, he was persuaded by the effectiveness of the William Blinn’s teleplay adaptation of Gale Sayers’ autobiography. And while the film provided Billy Dee Williams with a star-making role, he was actually a last-minute replacement for Lou Gossett, Jr., who ironically had to drop out after tearing an Achilles tendon in a basketball game. At the year’s Emmy Awards, the film garnered five wins, including Best Single Program Drama and Supporting Actor for Jack Warden. Although nominated, both Caan and Williams lost out in the Best Actor category.


Wah-Wah (2005)

This week’s indie is Wah-Wah, a 2005 autobiographical comedy-drama written and directed by Richard E. Grant.

Set in the tiny African nation of Swaziland—now modern day Eswatini— Wah-Wah is actor Richard E. Grant’s cinematic memoir of his tumultuous adolescence in the years leading up to the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1968. With the region’s British colonialists trapped in an isolated bubble, the title “wah-wah” refers to the antiquated dialect spoken by the self-appointed white elites, who are growing increasingly anxious about their impending obsolescence. Zac Fox and Nicholas Hoult share the role of Ralph Compton, a fictionalized surrogate for Grant from the ages of 11 to 14 as he struggles to cope with the stormy relationship of his parents Harry and Lauren, played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson. As the British Protectorate’s head of education, Harry is affable by day, but by nighttime, after too much drinking, a shocking Mr. Hyde-like transformation takes place. Bored and discontent, Lauren is conducting a brazen affair with her husband’s best friend. And as the years roll by, and the time draws near for Princess Margaret’s arrival for the country’s final independence ceremony, the “wah-wah” community’s anxiety level reaches a fever pitch during an incongruous amateur production of Camelot.

Also starring is Emily Watson as Harry’s new American wife, along with Julie Walters and Celia Imrie as feuding rivals.

A longtime diarist ever since writing about his experiences making his film debut in Withnail and I, Richard E. Grant began developing the story of his unusual childhood as a film project in 1999, laboring for five years until shooting commenced in July of 2004. Grant chronicled the production’s trials and tribulations in “The Wah-Wah Diaries,” including such headaches as neglected music clearances and missing location rights, requiring Grant to meet with the King of Swaziland himself to seek special permissions. But despite the film’s production challenges, Grant’s reputation and personal connections proved essential in securing the film’s terrific cast of outstanding actors.

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