The release of Beckham, Netflix’s four-part documentary chronicling the rise of English football’s most famous son. Directed by Succession and Short Circuit actor Fisher Stevens and assembled by Beckham's own production company, it promises “never-before-seen” footage of the former England captain’s career and family life. No mean feat for a man who has taken us behind the Brylcreemed curtains from the very beginning.
Ours was a full-blown national obsession that transcended sport and social strata, whipped up by a consummate self-promoter with a face for billboards. In the eight transformative years that followed his wonder goal at Selhurst Park in 1996—the ones that took him from a house-share in Salford to a mega mansion in Madrid—David Beckham released three autobiographies: My Story, My World, and My Side.
They were best-sellers, supplemented by three access-some-areas documentaries—David Beckham: Football Superstar (1997), The Real David Beckham (2000) and The Real Beckhams (2002)—as well as countless interviews in magazines and newspapers and TV studios.
All but one of the aforementioned documentaries promised the kind of candour and intimacy that you very rarely receive—or arguably even deserve—from a star of his wattage. They occasionally deliver on it. Watching them all back is an exercise in squaring his supposedly shy, solitary, family-first persona with a relentless pursuit of global fame. The clothes are fun, too.
In Beckham, the latest "definitive" effort, we're watching a man bask in the glow of his own legacy, often mere millimetres away from his (admittedly, still great) face. It's the never-ending victory lap, available in perpetuity around the world. And to director Fisher Stevens' credit, the film is as deftly put together as its subject. But to watch the old documentaries back—shot in more detached, traditional formats—is to see David in the eye of a long storm, as the giddy days of Beckham-mania give way to something eerier, more perilous and overwhelming.
It starts out innocently enough with the straight-to-VHS David Beckham: Football Superstar (with “free double-sided Becks poster!”) filmed a year before the World Cup in France. The 22-year-old seems to be taking his newfound fame in his stride, proudly showing off the racks of designer clothes that fill his modest home (alongside a life-size cardboard cut-out of… himself. He swears it’s not his).
But in other ways, Beckham seems unfit for it. He talks protectively about his alone time, and likes nothing more than going to his local Chinese restaurant for a solo meal. “I enjoy my own company," he tells the documentary-maker, bashfully. "I suppose I’ve got used to being alone for a long time”. You wonder when he last enjoyed a prawn cracker in peace.
Then things ramp up several notches. In the 2000 BBC documentary, The Real David Beckham, he talks about the people who rummage through bins outside Vidal Sassoon "trying to find my blonde locks"; about the fall-out from that self-inflicted red card at the 1998 World Cup, the death threats and the abuse and the bouts of depression. Sitting in a sports car outside Gary Neville's house, the documentary fades to black as Beckham laments his lack of trust with the outside world.
If Netflix's Beckham owes a debt to The Last Dance, then The Real Beckhams from 2002, aired again on the BBC, is a heavily subdued take on the early reality shows of that era. It catches the couple in a moment of flux: David has just been (somewhat reluctantly) carted off to join the Galácticos of Real Madrid, while wife Victoria is on the verge of launching a new single and touring the world.
But it's at this crossroad that you can see the pair finally begin to wrestle control of the PR machine, talking solemnly about their business politics, commercial interests and desire to take personal brands to "the next level". The disapproving spectre of Alex Ferguson is no more. Ironically, an otherwise dry conversation about setting up an office in Madrid produces one of the film's lighter, more revealing moments.
"We both worry about the overexposure thing," says Victoria, as her husband lounges on the sofa chomping Hobnobs. "There isn’t a lot that David hasn’t advertised recently. He’s got away with it because he’s played fantastic football. But we're very much aware of the sell-by-date."
David looks bruised. "I haven't advertised that much".
"Babe, you have," responds Victoria. "But you haven't advertised McVitie's, so stick them behind the terrapins."
But none of the documentaries, in my mind, can match the accidental pathos that arrived with David Beckham’s cameo in ITV's seminal piece of football reportage, Rio Ferdinand’s World Cup Wind-Ups. Aired in the summer of 2006 in the build-up to another doomed international tournament, it was a hidden camera rip-off of the MTV reality show Punk’d, aimed at the England squad, with Rio larking about in the Ashton Kutcher role (it followed Nancy Dell'Olio’s Footballers' Cribs a year earlier, which was cancelled after a spate of robberies). Some of the pranks were surprisingly dark—Wayne Rooney comforting a boy whose dog has just died, in particular—but Beckham’s episode is equal parts melancholy and menace.
The set-up was simple: a taxi driver and loudmouth security man have been tasked with whisking the Real Madrid winger from Manchester's Lowry Hotel to an important business meeting, and they decide to take a time-wasting, deal-delaying detour. Harmless stuff. But from the moment Beckham enters the cab and folds to the floor like a discarded sarong, the everyday reality of his A-list status sets in.
We recognise smiley Becks. We recognise steely Becks, posing over a free kick, a magazine rack or a major shopping district. But here he looks uncharacteristically shifty, scoping out a potential paparazzi ambush while resting awkwardly against the car door handle, as speed bumps jostle his expensively insured body around the carpet. Even when the coast is clear, he can’t help but stare out of the rear windshield like a hunted animal.
Then the drama ramps up. Beckham asks if the driver is going the right way, and before you know it the pair are refusing to let him go, building to a full-blown barney. With the car still rolling with some speed towards a red light in Manchester’s Moss Side, Beckham jumps out and legs it before Rio and his camera team can catch up. Obtuse as this may sound, it does leave you wondering: what is the real upside to all this? Why would someone so self-contained want to be quite so famous? It looks like hell.
As sell-by-dates go, Beckham has long outlasted the biscuits. A pre-destined move to America four years later launched him into the stratosphere, first as a player for Los Angeles Galaxy and then, lately, as the Messi-whispering co-owner of Inter Miami. There have been more TV specials; more books, merchandise and commercial deals. He has received justified criticism for some of those—not least from the LGBTQ+ community for his ambassadorial role at the Qatar World Cup—but he can fall back on his 83 million Instagram followers, or the 3.6 billion views he has received on TikTok.
The world of celebrity has changed irrevocably, but the artist formerly known as Golden Balls remains on top. Now comes the award-bothering Netflix treatment. What next? And, perhaps more interestingly, why? Only David Beckham knows.