19 Apr 2010

Don Cherry the movie. Is it worth four hours of your time?

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The Don Cherry biopic, titled Keep Your Head Up, Kid, is a whopping four hour, two part production that will air Sunday and Monday on the CBC (8 p.m. local times).

Is this marathon epic worth sitting through?
The answer is: Absolutely.

The story is not deep, but it moves along quickly. It is never dull, the performances are fine and it has a great look. The sets authentically evoke eras that begin in the 1940s and conclude in the early 1980s. The action sequences are well done.

Don says he is pleased with the way his late wife, Rose, is portrayed, and well he should be. Sarah Manninen, a TV actress, gives a strong and believable performance as Rose, the supportive wife and the glue that holds the family together as Don bounces from one minor league hockey backwater to another, dragging Rose and the kids with him as he plies his trade, which consists mostly of laying a beating on people and getting paid very little to do it.

TV actor Jared Keeso, who plays the great man, has more hair than Grapes did post-30, so he can’t replicate the comb-over. And, Keeso’s Cherry seems a little quiet for a guy who, as an NHL coach and later a TV personality, loved the camera, the celebrity and the media. But perhaps Don was a tight-lipped, no-nonsense type in his early years.

Keeso does bring energy and stolid determination to the role, and also some humour. In the end, it’s not hard to make the connection between the Cherry we know and the actor playing him in the movie.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about the production is the contribution of Don’s son, Tim Cherry, who is a co-producer and the writer. Tim has no experience as a script writer, yet he penned the screenplay, with help from screenwriter-author Paul Quarrington, who was brought in to polish it. (Paul died of cancer in January.)

When I talked to Tim two years ago about his plans for the movie, he mentioned that Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film, was an influence. Like Goodfellas, Tim uses a voice-over narration, along with period music, to give the story pace and context.

Part 1, which follows Don’s early career as a player, does at times have the feel of Goodfellas. Substitute New York’s guys and dolls of the 1960s and 1970s with another colourful gang of violent misfits, wannabes and weirdos — Cherry’s minor league teammates — and you get a sense of what Tim and director Jeff Woolnough, a TV veteran who has directed CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, were trying to accomplish.

There’s Larry Zeidel (played by Sean Bell) the minor league loon, infamous for his stick fights, who is incensed when Cherry passes him as penalty minutes leader. And, of course, there is Eddie Shore, the certifiably crazy owner of the Springfield Indians, who strung a noose around his goalie’s neck and tied it to the crossbar of the net to stop him from flopping. Shore is played by the great Stephen McHattie.

Other good supporting performances: Ian Tracey as Cherry’s beleaguered boss with the Boston Bruins, the general manager Harry Sinden; and Craig Eldridge as Punch Imlach, the coach of Springfield and later Toronto Maple Leafs.

Part 2 on Monday moves the story to Cherry’s coaching career and, appropriately wraps it up with the gut-wrenching Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semi-final between Cherry’s Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, a game the Bruins probably should have won and ultimately cost Cherry his job.

This contains the best scene sequences of the movie. The now iconic picture of Cherry, standing on the bench, flamboyantly bowing to the braying crowd at the Montreal Forum, is reproduced. Real footage is blended with shots at the bench and the dressing room. You feel the tension building, and the sense of panic and confusion on the ice as the Bruins cling to the lead, fighting off relentless pressure by the Canadiens. The devastating impact of the too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the final three minutes of regulation time hits like a fist.

It’s hard to believe that he actually did this, but during the game Cherry left the bench and ran down the hall to the Hockey Night In Canada studio to complain to producer Ralph Mellanby about the telecast replaying the fights that Canadiens players won, but not replaying those in which the Bruins triumphed.

Mellanby looks at Cherry like he’s got two heads. Indeed, the scene does make Cherry look like a horse’s ass. They could have kept it out, but to Tim’s credit, it was included because, well, it was such an insane thing to do and it needed to be told. It also heightened the drama of the moment, and spoke to how out of control hockey people will get, Cherry in particular, in the heat of battle.

A biopic that is written and produced my one’s loving son is almost by definition going to be self-serving. And certainly, Cherry comes across very well. Yes, he makes some mistakes along the way, but, generally, Don is the noble and principled warrior. But, he’s also shown to be stubborn, over-burdened with hubris and not above undermining his boss Sinden.

Of all the talking, and also writing, that Cherry has done over the years about his relationship with Sinden, this movie portrays the Bruins boss the most sympathetically. Cherry admits in the movie that he pushed hard to trade Phil Esposito, even though at the time of the controversial deal he claimed to be largely a bystander and let Sinden take the heat. As the years went on, Cherry, to his players and the media, made Sinden the heavy while presenting himself as the good guy. In the narration, Cherry says he doesn’t blame Sinden for firing him.

It’s not easy to get a TV movie produced in Canada. Financing is difficult and, when you mention the idea of a sports flick to an executive at the entertainment division of a TV network, generally you will get a blank stare.
So, kudos to Tim Cherry for pulling this off and for delivering, with plenty of help from Woolnough, an entertaining and well made movie.


One Response to “Don Cherry the movie. Is it worth four hours of your time?”

  1. Linda Clarke says:

    Is it worth 4 hours of my time???? It sure is.I’m not a Bruins fan,my team is the Habs and has been for over 50 years, but I have always enjoyed Mr.Cherry and am looking forward to the conclusionof the movie. It’s you love him or you hate him, and I love him.Those that don’t like him have no idea what class is all about.Keep up the good work,Grapes.

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