ONCE IN A LIFETIME: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE NEW YORK COSMOS (directors: Paul Crowder and John Dower; screenwriters: based on the book "Once in a Lifetime" by Gavin Newsham/Mark Monroe; editor: Paul Crowder; music: Matter; cast: Matt Dillon (Narrator); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: John Battsek/Fisher Stevens/Tim Williams; Miramax; 2006)

"Not being a soccer fan, the Cosmos phenomenon had no impact on me at the time nor does this energetic film change that opinion."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Paul Crowder and John Dower's historical documentary chronicles the rocky rise and rapid fall of the Cosmos, a New York-based soccer team bankrolled by soccer enthusiast Warner Communications mogul Steve Ross and Ahmet Ertegun and Nesuhi Ertegun (the founders of Atlantic Records) in 1971. There's no interview with superstar Pelé, the only Cosmos who declined the honor. But it does highlight team owner Ross's penchant for publicity, hunting down celebs, signing big name players such as the Brazilian Pelé (at the time, he was the highest paid athlete on the planet), Germany's silky-smooth Franz Beckenbauer, nude posing for a Viva magazine spread goaltender Shep Messing and the flamboyant Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, and shrewd marketing skills that kept America's most famous soccer team afloat for its short run. After five years, the Cosmos caught the attention of the public and after its initial humble beginnings playing before small crowds of 1,000 at the deteriorating Downing Stadium at Randall's Island they moved to Giants Stadium and started drawing full-houses of 77,000 fans for a sport few Americans cared about.

It's a freewheeling and gossipy look at the scrappy Cosmos as heroes, egotists, party animals and villains. It covers their off-field antics over sex (including sex on the plane taking the team to a championship match) and, at times, it even covers the secondary story of them as players doing their thing on the field. It mixes archival footage, file photos, popular 1970s pop music and contemporary interviews (with former players, coaches, news-makers and the media) to keep things glamorous and diverting. The aggressive American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger makes an appearance as the man when asked by Ross to help sign Pelé, somehow persuaded his Brazilian government counterparts to allow their retired national hero to play for a U.S. team. 

In the end, failure was due to all of the following: the NASL (North American Soccer League) folded because it over-expanded too quickly, ABC cancelled the TV contract because the sport did not catch on quickly with the American television audience, the great Pelé retired and the Cosmos hangout in the rocking disco Studio 54 closed signaling the end of an era. Though there's some speculation that the negative influence of Chinaglia also led to the team's eventual downfall (which is not denied by the star player, the most engaging figure in the film). He's viewed as a villain whose "malign influence" on Ross brought undue friction on the team.

Not being a soccer fan, the Cosmos phenomenon had no impact on me at the time nor does this energetic film change that opinion. But if you're looking for merely an entertaining vehicle to get a few laughs on a passing pop culture craze that has no great political or social significance, this sporting documentary should do the trick.

REVIEWED ON 12/4/2006        GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"