George Orwell wrote that good prose is like a window pane. The same can be said for documentaries that aspire to the level of truth and immersion attained by On Freddie Roach, the new cinema verité series from actor-filmmaker Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights).
The six-episode series (premiering on Jan. 20 on HBO) centers on Roach, owner of the famed Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood (and trainer of such world champions as Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.), who suffers from Parkinson's disease that likely stems from his own ring career. Rather than spell things out, Berg allows his subject to bleed through the screen with minimal narration. The result is a gorgeously wrought portrait of an ordinary man at work amid an atmosphere of celebrity. The reality show label that it will inevitably attract at best cheapens, at worst misleads. This is art.
A product of HBO Original Programming rather than HBO Sports, On Freddie Roach is clearly aimed at a wider demographic. Berg cites the work of nonfiction maestro Frederick Wiseman, and the influence is clear: Cameras followed the 51-year-old trainer for more than 16 hours a day over seven months, always keeping a distance. "They never asked me to do anything or not do anything," Roach said at a screening last week—where he also confessed that he didn't realize how much he trembled until seeing it on screen.
The opening episode follows Roach (left, with Khan) in the buildup to Khan's title defense against Zab Judah last July, and it captures the unique rhythm and quietude of fight week in a way seldom seen on TV. The narrative is laid out not with the sound bites and stylistic trappings of 24/7, HBO's franchise sports docuseries, but through eavesdropped conversations and spartan, sometimes abstract images that convey the loneliness of a man at the top of his profession.
On Freddie Roach finds beauty and character in the sublime and the mundane, whether it's the balletic art of Roach working the mitts with Pacquiao or his obsessive-compulsive habit of wiping, ordering, putting things in place. Like Roach himself, the series contains not an ounce of artifice. So when a health scare strikes a member of the Wild Card family in the second episode, the emotion is raw, but the tears shed are nearly all off camera.
Berg hopes to continue the series as a brand—he's already spent a week filming Washington State football coach Mike Leach for a follow-up pitch—and hopes to expand the scope beyond sports. "The goal is to do a cinema verité series profiling different people in all walks of life," Berg says. "The mantra is, 'People who are fully engaged in their lives.'" He couldn't have chosen a better starting point.