Throughout the 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up your virtual tickets.
One telltale sign that a documentary feature is doing something right is the ease with which it engrosses viewers who have no familiarity (or even interest in) the subject matter. A film about the life of maverick designer Steve McQueen already has one foot in the door with anyone who has a passion for haute couture fashion, for example, just as a Bob Dylan concert doc is an easy sell to an avowed fan of America’s living saint of songwriting. Hooking someone who is at best ignorant of a film's subject, though? That’s what separates a glorified Wikipedia entry from a lively work of documentary cinema.
Such is the case with God Save the Wings, an unlikely little Sports Underdog Story for people who don’t normally pay much mind to Sports Underdog Stories. There’s no secret formula to the approach employed by co-directors Adam Knapp and Kenneth Linn, who are primarily focused on spinning a rousing, sometimes droll tale about one of the United States' more obscure yet beloved major-league sports franchises. It certainly helped that producers Tim O’Bryhim and Michael Romalis had already laid out a detailed, enthusiastic blueprint for the film in their 2016 book, Make This Town Big: The Story of Roy Turner and the Wichita Wings. Yet what Knapp and Linn achieve with God Save the Wings is a touch more spirited and rascally than its easy blend of sports history, fanboy passion, and hokey retro charm might suggest on paper. They add just enough bouncy cinematic energy and slippery meta-humor that the feature ultimately feels like more than the sum of its parts.
To tour the agonies and ecstasies of Wichita’s Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) team – the only top-level pro sports club in a Midwestern city hungry for big-league grandeur – God Save the Wings opts for an unconventional Virgil. That would be Andy Chapman, the former Arsenal Football Club forward who four decades ago arrived in Kansas on New Year’s Eve to join the Wings’ inaugural season. Using striking black-and-white photography, Knapp and Linn follow a present-day Chapman – as garrulous and no-bullshit as one would imagine for a London-born ex-footballer – as he narrates his story while puttering around town and making various eccentric pit stops. (Such as settling in for a fresh shave at an old-school barbershop.) Occasionally, Chapman gamely re-enacts moments from his early days in Wichita, and, in a bit of cheek that recalls comic biopics like Private Parts (1997) and American Splendor (2003), no effort is made to conceal the fact that the athlete is obviously 61 years old. Coupled with the film’s penchant for fondly taking the piss out of Midwesterners’ chatty friendliness, this loose framing device gives God Saves the Wings a touch of unruly wit that’s often absent from slicker, all-business sports-doc efforts.
Not that Knapp and Linn neglect the essential information-delivery components of documentary filmmaking. The directors draw on a king’s ransom of archival footage, which encompasses not just the expected news clips and game highlights, but also deliciously dated discoveries like footage from the Wings’ cheerleading-squad tryouts, not to mention the endless appearances players made in commercials for local businesses. What’s more, the filmmakers manage to interview what seems like every living person who had any involvement in the club during its 1979-85 golden age, including players, management, journalists, and various back-office worker bees. Knapp and Linn keep the proceedings appealingly peppy and affectionate, rising above the admittedly conventional back-and-forth of archival snippets and talking heads to convey the potent, unabashed quality of Wings fandom, which was characterized by an exceptional level of hometown devotion.
It’s only in the film’s latter third that the filmmakers focus their gaze somewhat, zeroing on the franchise’s arguable high point, its electrifying and tumultuous 1980-81 season. (Never mind that the Wings persisted for another two decades, riding out pro indoor soccer’s collapses and resurgences in different leagues and iterations. Knapp and Linn know a good climax when they see it.) For St. Louis viewers, this is also roughly the point where an additional point of interest rears its head, in the form of the Wings’ hot-blooded rivalry with the Gateway City’s own MISL club, the Steamers. Providing a wild reverse-shot perspective on St. Louis’ team, God Save the Wings casts the Steamers as the thuggish American heavies to Wichita’s more elegant, European style of soccer. The legendary March 27, 1981, semi-final between St. Louis and Wichita at the old St. Louis Arena (then known as the Checkerdome) practically receives a play-by-play breakdown in the film’s final stretch. For St. Louis sports fans of a certain age, this sequence offers a nostalgia-rich glimpse of the Steamers’ heyday. More importantly, it conveys the jittery energy and heartbreaking drama of the beloved Wings’ dalliance with major-league glory, bestowing even the sports-apathetic viewer with a vivid if momentary dose of superfan investment.
Virtual tickets for God Save the Wings are available to MO and IL viewers from Nov. 5 - 22 and can be purchased here.