The timeless 1971 telepic Brian’s Song is the Mona Lisa of male weepers. Grown men are invariably reduced to blubbering babies by the tale of the undying bond between Chicago Bears star Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and his terminally ill teammate, Brian Piccolo (James Caan). Thirty years later, ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney dares to repaint this made-for-TV masterpiece, but the results are less reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci than of ’70s schlock-jock artist LeRoy Neiman.
As a genre, remakes present inherent pitfalls. Replicate the original too closely and you’re superfluous. Depart too radically and you’re messing with a sacred text. Executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron pulled off graceful updates of Annie and Cinderella for Disney in recent seasons, but they fumbled in handing off Song to John Gray, writer-director of one of the worst TV movies ever, 1998’s hysterically overwrought The Day Lincoln Was Shot.
Gray apparently spent too much time watching Any Given Sunday. He rips off Oliver Stone’s overamped style, hyperactively cutting between film stocks in the game scenes. One of Gray’s F/X’d-up sequences, in which Sayers (Mekhi Phifer) runs in slo-mo as the other players are sped up behind him, gets it exactly wrong. It’s Sayers who made his opponents look like they were stuck in low gear.
Last seen shooting hoops as a teen Othello in O, Phifer seethes with a similar rage as Sayers. He plays the soft-spoken halfback as more sullen than shy and shows genuine hostility toward pain-in-the-backfield Piccolo (Sean Maher) early on. It’s an intriguing reinterpretation, but as a result, their eventual friendship is tough to believe, especially since the moment when Piccolo wins Sayers over is never sufficiently dramatized.
The blandly handsome Maher, a veteran of the deservedly short-lived Fox dramas The Street and Ryan Caulfield: Year One, makes Piccolo seem more like an obnoxious frat boy than a noble martyr. He’s too buff to stand in for the famously puny fullback in the game sequences, and once Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer, he lets his shaved head and pale face do the acting for him. (A better choice for the role might’ve been James Caan’s son, Scott, who displayed his talent on the gridiron in Varsity Blues.) Most depressingly, Maher and Phifer exhibit zero chemistry, a property that’s vital to conveying the central relationship in this platonic male Love Story.
The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better. As the gruff but lovable coach George Halas, Ben Gazzara gets the gruff part down but leaves out the lovable, at least until a shamelessly tacked-on scene in which he suddenly professes that Piccolo is like a son to him. The roles of wives Joy Piccolo (Providence‘s Paula Cale) and Linda Sayers (The Hughleys‘ Elise Neal) have been beefed up since the ’71 film, when they were passively loving mannequins, but these ineffectual actresses bring little to the parts aside from a willingness to bear the brunt of their unsightly ’60s wardrobe.
With all the subtlety of a linebacker, Gray inserts a scene early on in which Piccolo inexplicably refuses to tell his wife he loves her—all the better to milk bathos out of his deathbed declaration of devotion to her. In the ultimate tearjerker test, my eyes stayed dry during this ostensibly emotional high point—even when Gray used Michel Legrand’s heartstring-tugging original theme to underscore it.
That haunting refrain is needlessly supplemented by new instrumentals from Richard Marvin that mix screeching faux metal with bad lite-funk. The rest of the soundtrack is littered with overused period tunes from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix. One moldy oldie, ”Cool Jerk,” seems to be a friendly poke at Piccolo, but Maher only evokes the title’s latter half.
The Disney version fails to answer that inescapable question: With the original available on video, why redo it? ”This thing still holds up—it’s amazing,” Billy Dee Williams marvels on the DVD’s chummy commentary with Caan, who agrees, ”It’s a miracle.” The remake remains frustratingly unmiraculous. It might have the same title, but sadly, it’s not the same old Song. C-