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Does ‘Brian’s Song’ Really Need Another Verse?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sports radio remains pretty much without peer in the media world’s overflowing yahoo department, an arena where the importance of loudly having an opinion far exceeds possessing actual knowledge. Still, it was hard not to nod along a few weeks ago listening as two of Fox Sports’ resident Neanderthals voiced outrage over ABC’s plans to remake “Brian’s Song.”

Amid the customary grunting the pair managed to make a point, however primitive, which has been echoed by more than a few critics--namely, that the idea of remaking “Brian’s Song,” the 1971 made-for-TV movie starring Billy Dee Williams and James Caan as real-life football comrades Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, smacks of sacrilege.

In hindsight, the original seems unsurpassable, a true three-hankie affair. Caan played the likable, gregarious Chicago Bears fullback who died of cancer at 26, with Williams as the shy, laconic superstar who grows to love him. Throw in the memorable Michel Legrand score, all that male bonding and dialogue like the stricken Piccolo feebly whispering, “It’s fourth and eight, and they won’t let me punt,” and it remains one of the few movies men can unabashedly admit to crying over, along with “Old Yeller” (so long as they were 12 or younger when they first saw it) and “Spartacus.”

Of course, the whole idea of remaking movies raises various questions. A much-beloved title, after all, brings with it a certain built-in value, the sort of instant name-recognition that the marketing department doesn’t have to spend millions selling. This is particularly alluring in a crowded media marketplace where network executives talk about putting on movies that can be boiled down to 10-second promos and where studios focus on movie franchises that can be replicated over and over.

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If all this isn’t definitive proof that we are fast running out of original ideas, it certainly provides evidence to help make that case. How else to explain director Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot color remake of “Psycho” in 1998, Disney’s plans to produce a new version of “The Alamo” or the soon-to-be-released “Ocean’s Eleven,” which proves that even mediocre movies can have a certain mystique about them.

Granted, there is something to be gained, at least potentially, in remaking low-budget science-fiction movies or TV shows and updating the special effects, as was the case with more recent productions of “The Fly,” “The Thing,” “Lost in Space” and “The Mummy.”

Still, why bother with a character-driven piece like “Brian’s Song?” And what’s next, a re-shoot of “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane?”

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have done quite well for themselves remaking well-known properties, including ABC’s musical revivals of “Cinderella” and “Annie,” so they were hardly unprepared for such skepticism. In fact, when reached in London--where they are working on another musical, a big-screen version of “Chicago"--they began by mentioning a recent screening of the new “Brian’s Song” for the current Chicago Bears and their families, who brought their own misgivings to the party and were, according to the producers, won over.

“The first thing that struck us was the original film was only 73 minutes long,” Meron said. “There were huge chunks of the story that were left out because of the running time.... I don’t think it’s a remake. It’s taking the same story and expanding on it and filling in the blanks.”

Part of that includes fleshing out the roles of the wives--relegated to “stick figures” in the original, per Meron--giving more insight into Piccolo as a family man and retaining his widow, Joy, as a consultant.

The producers have also shot football game sequences instead of using videotape of the real Sayers in action, as the original did, and point out that the two co-stars, Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher, are closer in age to their characters than Williams and Caan, who were 34 and 31, respectively, when the first movie premiered.

Perhaps foremost, however, is the idea that so much time has passed--that many of those who fondly remember seeing “Brian’s Song” as children or teenagers now have children of their own. And since the movie is being presented under the “Wonderful World of Disney” banner, the hope is those adults who remember watching the original with their parents will replicate that process, bringing a true “family audience” (as opposed to that term serving as code for “kid-friendly”) to the project.

“There’s a whole new generation, 30 years later, that has never seen ‘Brian’s Song,’” Zadan said.

“If we were just doing a Xerox of the movie, if we weren’t enhancing it, we would never have done it.... We’ve remade things where we thought we had something to add. If you can bring other values to it, there’s no reason not to do a new version of it.”

No reason except that the original holds up exceptionally well, and that some of us cavemen actually cling to the notion some things we hold dear shouldn’t be recycled--that the first “Brian’s Song” or “Psycho” were just fine, thank you, as they were.

Zadan and Meron maintain they can overcome the resistance even of such anachronisms if given the chance, but they do acknowledge a formidable line is running interference between their movie and part of its potential audience.

“We’re up against memory,” Meron said, “and that’s very difficult to go up against.”

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“Brian’s Song” airs Sunday night at 7 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).


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