Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Brian’s Song (TV)

Grade : A Year : 1971 Director : Buzz Kulik Running Time : 1hr 13min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

It’s kind of remarkable to me that I hadn’t yet seen one of the most famous, and popular, TV movies of all-time, “Brian’s Song,” before now. What’s even weirder is that I forgot it was a TV movie. You can definitely tell those trappings watching it, however, although that doesn’t mean that it is lacking something in its ability to get the most out of its subject emotionally. And with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as the leads, this is not the type of movie we often think of as a “TV movie” now. They make it count, emotionally, and it’s easy to see why this landed like it did.

The film tells the story of the friendship that formed between Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (Caan) and Gale Sayers (Williams), who came out of college the same year, and who found themselves in the same backfield for a few years after being stars in college. Sayers is a natural runner, and went on to a Hall of Fame career, while Piccolo struggled to find the field before Sayers went out with a knee injury. After Sayers recovers, Piccolo was moved to fullback so they could both be on the field, but that is short-lived when it’s revealed that Piccolo has cancer. Their friendship is tested like never before by the news.

As dramatic filmmaking, “Brian’s Song” has all of the trappings of a TV movie melodrama, but it’s certainly an effective one. The script by William Blinn touches on what must have seemed like conventional dramatic beats even in 1971, and director Buzz Kulik basically stays out of his stars’s way as they provide the heavy-lifting for this film, with an assist from not just Jack Warden as George Halas (a role that won him an Emmy) but also the insistent score by Michel Legrand that pushes every manipulative button in the film composer’s arsenal. That being said, this movie belongs to Caan and Williams, and they are both terrific playing this heartfelt friendship that sprang up unexpectedly, and changed both lives forever.

Being a football fan my entire life, I’m kind of disappointed in myself for never having seen “Brian’s Song” until this moment, but as a movie fan, I’ve had a backlog for a couple of decades now. This time felt right to finally seeing it for myself. It’s been on a shortlist of sports-centered movies I’ve wanted to watch, and you can’t really go wrong with Caan or Williams when they’re giving strong material to dig into. And say what you will about the “TV movie of the week” boxes “Brian’s Song” checks off (heck, it probably added some of those itself, at the time), but it effectively tugs at the heartstrings when you want it to. Regardless of whether it was made for a movie house of a family’s house, any movie that can do that is a winner, and by the time Sayers, while accepting the George Halas award for courage, tells the audience, “I love Brian Piccolo,” “Brian’s Song” has already finished and is just pacing at the finish line.

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