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  • The Band That Wouldn’t Die
  • Justin Owen Rawlins
The Band That Wouldn’t Die (2009). Directed by Barry Levinson. Baltimore Films. Distributed by ESPN Films. 51 mins.

Less a film about athletic competition than the culture that arises around a team, The Band That Wouldn’t Die fashions a complex portrait of a city’s identification with, and recovery of, an institution integral to the fabric of community life. In studying Baltimore’s loss of its beloved Colts, the endurance of the Colts Marching Band in the absence of the team, and the eventual arrival of the Ravens, the film argues for the indefatigable spirit of fandom that enables a city to come to grips with the absence of its beating heart and eventually re-imagine its relationship to the sport that more than a decade later called Baltimore home again.

Acclaimed filmmaker Barry Levinson is no stranger to the Charm City. In an interview that marks the film’s unacknowledged (yet thematically resonant) prologue, Levinson introduces the viewer to his own biographical connection with the Colts Marching Band. As the son of a season ticket holder he accompanied his father to every Colts home game. Sitting in the same section year after year, Levinson, like most of the interviewees in the film, formed a strong bond with the team and their marching band. It is this affinity that initially appears shattered in 1984 and yet, as the director demonstrates, remains alive and well through the band during the city’s twelve-year hiatus from the National Football League (NFL).

Those familiar with Levinson’s oeuvre will note the director’s frequent cinematic returns to his hometown. The oft-termed “Baltimore trilogy” of Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987), and Avalon (1990) establishes an inextricable connection between the man’s work and the city; additional feature films such as Liberty Heights (1999), documentaries such as The Original Diner Guys (1999), and television series such as Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999) and Diner (1983) further cement the iconography of Baltimore within the director’s visual lexicon. This is clearly evident again in The Band That Wouldn’t Die, for the familiar images of Baltimore Harbor and city streets accompany those of Memorial Stadium, the team, and the band. In tandem with other media (David Simon’s television series The Wire comes to mind), these graphic tropes impress upon the viewer an inextricable socio-psychological link between the Colts and the identity of a community located between cities (New York and Washington are specifically mentioned) with far more recognizable national profiles. This suggests not that Baltimore weds its personality absolutely to the Colts but demonstrates instead that the team symbolically represents fans’ desires to distinguish themselves from their larger neighbors in a national arena.

While The Band That Wouldn’t Die works to cement Baltimore’s identification with the Colts, the narrative hinges on the twelve-year span between owner Robert Irsay’s decision to move the team to Indianapolis in 1984 and the arrival of the Ravens in 1996. The film meshes dramatic reenactments and historical footage of the night in 1984 when the [End Page 131] Mayflower moving company vans pulled into and out of the Colts’ Owings Mills, Mary-land offices, contrasting the tranquil snowfall of that March evening with the harsh reality of the team’s sickening departure. Interviewees, including members of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, the “Colts Corral” fan club, former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor William D. Schaefer, and Levinson himself, express feelings of shock, betrayal (directed at Irsay and the NFL), and loss, even as the marching band comes together with a new mission. By continuing to perform, it becomes clear, the band simultaneously honors the legacy of the Baltimore Colts (assuaging that palpable sense of loss among the faithful) and demonstrates to the rest of the country the city’s passion for professional football. It is the band, Levinson’s film suggests, that forms the initial bond with Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell and helps the Maryland state legislature to pass the necessary funds to construct a new stadium, eventually drawing the Browns’ owner to relocate the team to...


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pp. 131-132
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