Over the six episodes of Netflix’s documentary “Cheer,” viewers become enmeshed in the preparations of the stalwart Navarro College cheerleading team as they train for the National Cheerleading Association’s championships. Will Lexi, Morgan, La’Darius and Jerry — all already veterans of the harsh vicissitudes of life — make it from the grueling training at their campus in rat backwards Corsicana, Texas to win in the sunny climes of Daytona Beach, Florida? Was the months of bone-jarring work developed by their coach, Monica Aldama, enough to win the top prize?
As it turns out, the filmmakers didn’t know if they would have their big dramatic finale, either, and the process of bringing it to screen is a testament to their creativity and resilience.
As “Cheer” explains, the corporate titan of cheerleading is Varsity Brands, a Farmers Branch, Texas-based company which has subsidiaries dedicated to cheerleading, including uniforms and championships; sports uniforms and equipment; and graduation supplies.
The cheerleading division, Varsity Spirit, includes Varsity TV, which has exclusive broadcast rights to Daytona, as well as the National Cheerleading Association, the organization putting on the competition. This is not, in short, a situation where a lot of outsiders are involved in the process. Throughout filming, the “Cheer” producers were in negotiations with Varsity to be able to film Navarro’s performance at the championships. Ultimately, they were denied.
This is not to paint Varsity TV as some sort of villain — far from it, says Arielle Kilker, who in true all-hands-on-deck documentarian life acted as the series producer, co-director, and supervising editor. The conversations with Varsity were amicable, she said, and remained so throughout the process of filming the documentary.
But the bottom line was immobile. The “Cheer” crew couldn’t use their equipment to film in Daytona. “Once we got there to Daytona, we really saw all the reasoning and why they were apprehensive about letting a camera crew in,” Kilker said. “I totally understand having a bunch of boom mics and all these professional cameras around is incredibly distracting and we’re talking about a sport that relies on razor-thin margins of error. They really wanted to protect the sport and the competition and I totally understand that.”
In a statement provided by a spokesperson to IndieWire, Varsity TV said:
“Cheerleading can have an incredibly powerful impact on the lives of young people so we appreciate the spotlight that Cheer put on the young athletes at Navarro, and we are excited about the current increase in interest and attention that cheerleading is receiving, including on Varsity TV.
Reducing the number of distractions at our championship events to ensure the safety of our athletes as they compete is a top priority. As a result, we have a media policy and protocol similar to that at other major sporting and entertainment events, and we closely monitor the placement of all production cameras.
We are continuously evaluating our programming on Varsity TV and other partners like ESPN with the goal to increase the exposure of cheerleading and its athletes across the globe.”
And so the cinematic scope of “Cheer” gets a twist in the most dramatic closing minutes, as the cast and crew record the last part of the competitive action on their cell phones. In an unexpected twist, the ubiquity and acceptance of personal filming of sports for distribution on social media gave the filmmakers the opportunity to capture the concluding moments for the series.
It’s a choice explained in the documentary itself, when the crew interviews Varsity Spirit’s President, Bill Seely. In the interview, he says they’ve developed really tight guidelines as to who can be allowed in the venue on Daytona Beach. When he’s asked if he’s concerned about iPhones, he replies that he isn’t, because “it’s part of our culture and I think that that’s not as distractive as kind of a big camera crew that’s running around behind the scenes and following a team throughout their competition event.” The screen then cuts to black, and a card informs the viewer that Varsity Spirit denied the crew’s access to the College Nationals Competition, and “the following footage was captured by attendees at the event.”
For anyone involved in media with any experience with broadcast rights, it’s a jarring moment, one that takes a moment to pull the curtain back a bit on the hustle going on behind the camera as well as in front of it. This was a documentary with dual levels of drama — would the team’s big emotional moment happen? And would the filmmakers be there to capture it?
“Whether we were going to be given permission to film the competition was obviously very stressful and hectic,” Kilker said. “It was an ongoing conversation and negotiation throughout the filming. We were definitely very stressed not knowing if we were going to be able to film what the entire series was going to be culminating to.”
But Kilker, who previously worked on Peabody-nominated “Last Chance U,” it was all part of the dice throw that is documentary filmmaking. “With a documentary like this, it’s so verite driven, and we’re all just flies on the wall,” Kilker said. “We have very little influence over what we’re filming, and that’s intentional. You kind of have to prepare yourself to get in a position to have really stunning filmography. At a moment’s notice, you have to pivot and make a choice.”
And, truly, what a finale it was. A member of the Navarro College team suffers an injury mid-performance at the championships, and the entire routine comes to a queasy halt. The rulebook is consulted, and they are allowed to restart — and will be judged until the injury occurred on their first attempt; and then from the point of injury onward during the second take. [Spoiler alert: They nail it, win the championship, and take an exultant swim with the trophy in the Atlantic Ocean.]
For both the Navarro and the documentarians, the last-minute bobble made them regroup and double down on their inherent skills. Kilker and her colleagues made it work with the footage they got, and they kept the emotional honesty of the piece in the new, even more verite style. The gritty innovation and adaptation is a perfect link between filmmaker and subject. And this Emmy season, that’s, yes, something to cheer.
“Cheer” is available on Netflix.