Barry Levinson's best documentary to date receives its American premiere today at the perfect Baltimore venue: M&T Bank Stadium. "The Band That Wouldn't Die" is his funny, stirring account of how the Baltimore Colts Marching Band kept marching after the Colts moved to Indianapolis.
The Colts band kept promoting the idea that Baltimore could once again be an ideal football city. Its members kept dreaming that impossible dream until it came true - and they triumphantly transfigured into the Marching Ravens.
This film is a labor of love in which the labor never shows. It glitters with affection for the city's homey beauty and defiant individualism. But it never gets gloppy or suffocatingly nostalgic. That's partly because it boasts a take-charge group hero at the core. The Colts-band-turned-Marching Ravens have gone marching on - straight into their appearance tonight at 6:30, before the film screens at 7 o'clock.
Adding the touch of suspense needed to make a perfect evening truly magical, Levinson hopes to host tonight's screening if he can fit it into the demands of completing "You Don't Know Jack" in New York, an HBO movie starring Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
Last week, Levinson took a break from shooting this tale of assisted suicide to talk about a band that wouldn't die.
Question:: For years I've heard you praise the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. Did you have the idea to make this movie before ESPN asked you to do it?
Answer: : It started over a decade ago with a Baltimore coffee table book. The people who put it out asked me if I would do the preface, and I did, and I said if you really wanted to understand the character of Baltimore, look to the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, which marched for 12 years without a team. There was the character of the city and its people - and that was the first time it came out of my head in that regard. The irony is that when ESPN approached me and asked if there was anything I wanted to do in terms of sports, I said, I'd like to do something which is really a little bit more in terms of human interest, about people's devotion to a team and how it fostered a sense of community. And I mentioned that and they said, 'Fantastic, great.'
Question: : Was the band always a big part of how you experienced the team?
Answer:: The band was always connected to the Baltimore Colts fight song. And I don't know anyone who doesn't know that fight song. It was always there: You'd hear the band start it up and you went, 'OK! We've got football today at Memorial Stadium!' That was always a big deal. But for John Ziemann [the band president] to keep that band together for 12 years marching, no pay, nothing, just trying to keep the spirit of it alive and bring a team back to Baltimore - the nature of the band just took on heroic significance.
Question:: Why did Baltimore develop such a deep connection to the Colts - and experience such a sense of loss when it left?
Answer:: We always think of Baltimore as a town, in a way, with all these little communities within it, and it had all these football fans who were part of these Colts corrals. They had a strong devotion to a team that was almost of mythological proportions. Five years after coming to Baltimore, suddenly the Colts are the greatest team there is. You get a host of giant superstars in football who were playing for this one team. It's extraordinary, even now it's hard to even think of it - you've got Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, and on defense, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti. And then, [sportswriter] Bill Gildea says it quite well in the film. This was the team that made the NFL. The league came to prominence with the Baltimore Colts. And all of a sudden, in 1984, they're gone. ...
But then the great part of the story is not that the band lost a team. It's that they lost a team and then got a team. You really have to tip your hat [to the Ravens' organization]. It was an incredibly smart, responsible, creative thing [for David and Art Modell] to do, to have a transition of the Colt band into the Ravens band. They were really thinking about something beyond profit. How do you bring everybody into the fold in a way that does marry the past and the present? That to me was the great design of this piece.
Question:: The film's title is "The Band That Wouldn't Die" - and for a while the band costumes were kept in a mausoleum! And this is a group that would evolve into the Marching Ravens for a team with a name linked to Edgar Allan Poe.