In 2014 Dan Gordon was approached by a production company to direct a film-length documentary about George Best but the English director’s research had already begun inadvertently two years earlier.
Gordon’s acclaimed work on the Emmy-nominated ESPN Films production Hillsborough, the story of the disaster that claimed 96 lives at the home of his own beloved Sheffield Wednesday in 1989, had taken him to Belfast for the first time in 2012 when all preconceptions about Best’s home place were thrown upside down.
Gordon was gobsmacked by the modernity of a city that stood at odds with his childhood following the Troubles on TV and the compact, provincial feel to the place would inform his understanding of what landing in cosmopolitan Manchester in the early 1960s must have felt like for a shy and retiring Irish teenager.
“This is a story that everyone thinks they know,” says Gordon. “I thought I knew it but once you start digging you realise that you don’t know this story at all. The big challenge for me was to get my teeth into the archive side of things and find footage and his own testimony.
“It was a challenge to find footage where he gives honest opinions and observations. He was much more guarded when he was on the downward spiral or things were just OK. But when he had fallen to the bottom and had some recovery time it was almost like he was finally able to give a really honest interview.”
Some of the archive footage used is familiar but enough of it is rare and it adds up to a compelling portrait. One of the reels shows Best and Matt Busby facing the media in a club lounge after the Northern Irishman had performed one of his disappearing acts and was eventually tracked down at the London flat of Irish actress Sinead Cusack.
It’s an extraordinary scene: On the one side of the couch a sheepish Best struggling to deal with Manchester United’s demise, his growing dependency on alcohol, and the overwhelming attention that tormented him, and on the other an avuncular Busby for whom the fallout from this new celebrity culture was so alien. Gordon agrees with the scene’s illuminating properties.
“There was a gentle, gentle tap on his knee by Busby, basically saying ‘go ahead, have your say son’. When (Best) leaves United for the final time two years later there is the close-up footage of Busby with tears in his eyes, lamenting the loss of this God-given talent. Those two pieces show to me the depth of that relationship.
“It was so much more than a father-son relationship and I never realised that.”
Gordon assembles an imp-ressive array of talking heads. That few feature throughout is a vivid expression of the manner in which people fell in and out of Best’s chaotic life and that he had many acquaintances but few friends. Lovers, he had more than a few. The testimony of three of the most important women in his life is what really fleshes the story out.
Now a Buddhist nun known as Ani Rinchen, Jackie Glass has been described as Best’s first love; Angie Best spent over a decade with him, and Alex Best lasted nine years with the man, the legend, and his many troubles before a divorce the year before he died of a lung infection and multiple organ failure.
“Far too many people are ready to just dismiss the bad stuff,” says Gordon. “‘Oh, he was great at football’. Yeah, he was, but it is nonsense when people say that the only person he hurt was himself. This film, without launching into a hatchet job on him, helps to explain that there was collateral damage, that he did hurt other people, both metaphorically and physically.”
A good guy who had demons, said one interviewee. Best himself claimed it would be his football that people would remember. This film is an eloquent answer to that. With Best you just can’t have the good without the bad.
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