With The Last Dance coming to an end and live sport only making tentative steps to start again, here are a few sports documentaries (including The Last Dance) to keep you going, with a flavour of genius, stardom and drive.
The Last Dance (2020)
Basketball was my favourite sport growing up in the 90s. This doc is like a time machine, taking me back to the days of trying to find a court so we could play morning, noon and night, pretending to be Michael Jordan. The release of the series with no other completing sport/narrative has made it a current cultural phenomenon. It’s been a hot topic on our Zoom calls.
The footage of the team following the Chicago Bulls 1998 season, Jordan’s last with the previous 5 times NBA champions, Chicago Bulls, has been kicking around for several years, but now, as significant time has passed, it’s ripe for revisiting.
Through the 10 part series tells the story of the 1998 season, the series also flashes back through Michael Jordan’s career and the significant moments for the Chicago Bulls in the preceding years. For a 90s basketball-phile, much of material is not new but there is further insight to be had as the director’s hands the protagonists an iPad showing previous incidents or recent interviews and film their reactions and responses.
If you want to see the will to win, this documentary will show you what that is, how you can gain motivation from any slight and how it can turn you into a bit of an asshole. There’s been some backlash as Jordon’s production company is an un-credited part of the production, and a number of ex-teammates have spoken out about how they were portrayed. There are honest, authentic and moving moments and interesting to see a couple of urban legends explained. Finished during the lockdown, it’s very well made, never seems rushed and is thorough entertaining, but only gets make with Jordan’s input and say so. I may not view it as many times as i did Air Time!
The documentary is nostalgia for many, at a time of no social media, very big suits on very big men and watching a VHS tape around your mates house, then going outside to re-enact it. In my bias opinion, The Last Dance can and should be watched by people with no interest in basketball as you also see a pre-internet superstar (and the press) cultivate what is now modern-day sport and the insane goings-on around it. A glorious piece of work that all should see.
Diego Maradona (2019)
Another polarising, driven and GOAT figure that’s a nice companion piece to The Last Dance, is this film directed by Asif Kapadia with more never before seen archival footage.
Nowadays, Maradona can be seen as the overweight character battling drink and drug issues, but this doc focuses his time with Napoli, transforming a team from the poor underdog south of Italy to take on the might of the northern giants of Milan and Juventus, and taking himself to the top of world football.
The demons are there to be seen from the start, not least when he is almost un-transferable due to his antics from his previous team, Barcelona, but Italy and Naples take him to their heart. This peaks and then descends at the pivot point of the doc and Maradona’s career, the 1990 World Cup semi-final as Argentina play Italy, in of all places. Naples. He didn’t help himself with the quote before the game of “Napoli is not Italy”.
How Italy turns against Maradona and his spiral with drugs and ties to the mafia is hard to watch. The best bits are seeing him in the dressing room as one of the lads, enjoying himself before he has to face the outside world again.
Kapadia is a skilled documentary maker and I implore you to see Senna (see below) and Amy (about another tragic figure, Amy Winehouse) where he creates flowing narrative films but with no voiceovers.
Although he single-handedly dumped England out of the 1986 World Cup, I’ve always like Maradona. It’s impossible not to respect this much talent. It’s great to see, much like Michael Jordan, how one man can will his team to win. Highly recommended.
A third part to the trilogy could be the 2010 doc also by Asif Kapadia (and which make his name) about another all-timer and maverick who didn’t always play by the rules. Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Motor Racing Champion.
Using newsreel archive, unseen footage and family home movies, the director weaves together a biography with no re-enactments or talking heads, showing how Senna reached the top of his sport, became an icon in Brazil and also the fateful day in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix.
Due to the fascinating central figure, again this film can be enjoyed by non-motorsport fans who will be in awe of the onboard race footage in days when there was much less computer wizardry.
The foreboding chain of events in 1994, in which you know what happened, and lead to his death still has you willing Senna not to get in the car, or to make it out of the Tamburello corner. The events of the weekend, including trying to make F1 safer, only make it more chilling.
Senna also made a list I made a few years back, including feature films.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Like The Last Dance, this doc comes in multiple parts, five in total and was the documentary who’s critical and Oscar success likely got the MJ series greenlit by ESPN. The documentary explores the life of O.J. Simpson through college, his American Football career and his later success in adverts and films. The trial in which he was tried for the murder of his wife and her friend is unavoidable.
I watched the coverage of the Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman murder trial back in 1994/95 and was hooked. But this documentary explores the issues race and celebrity in America as well as the ongoing tensions between the African American community and the LAPD that provide a backdrop to the Simpson murder trial including the Watts Riots and the Rodney King video. Also, Simpson’s seduction by the white middle class, wanting no part of the black civil rights movement until him defence team see the opportunity to make the trial all about race and Simpson’s blackness.
Twenty years later the majority of the key players from the prosecution and defence teams, jurors from the criminal trial, and former LAPD detectives involved in the case all provide interviews and look back on the trial and the fallout.
This is nearly 8 hours long but is thoroughly engrossing and sometimes dark, showing that many of America’s issues are ongoing and not helped by its current politics.
This is available on the BBC iPlayer
Free Solo (2018)
Another Best Feature Documentary Oscar-winner which follows Alex Honnold as he plans, trains and attempts to free solo El Capitan, a 3000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park. Free Soloing is rock climbing alone without ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment.
Yes, it sounds insane, and at times you have to remember to close your mouth as you see the task, Honnold is taking on. Honnold is a skilled climber but also has the personality that lends itself to the task. Calm, clear and very focused with a slight lack of emotion at times, he explains that he has practised all the moves, that he knows he can do them, so therefore the climb is not that risky!
The film also investigates the thoughts of the camera team and the dilemma of their presence is pushing Alex to go ahead with an attempt and the possibility that the worst might happen. A fantastic documentary which will have you thinking about what is actually possible.
As a companion piece, this podcast interviewing Alex on fear is great.
Andy Murray – Resurfacing (2019)
This film that tracks the tennis star’s devastating injury journey between 2017-2019 and also reviews his career throughout.
Andy Murray can divide opinion. I have several close family and friends who can’t stand him. I have always quite liked him. Why the hell does he have to be just like everyone else wants him to be? He does not have to be vanilla Roger Federer!
This doc shows a much more human side to Murray rather that the sneering or crying you see at Wimbledon. There’s an intimate insight into the travelling circus of tennis and the team (that need to be paid) needed to be on top in the modern-day, as well as the constant hounding by the press to have some kind of story.
Ultimately, Murray’s body fails him when he is at the top of his game and boy does he look under every stone and do every workout to make it back, and the tough decision whether to have surgery or not. Tennis seems to be something he just can’t give up, some of which is explained by the solace tennis gave him following his parent’s divorce and the Dunblane shooting.
There were times I thought, you have three slams, including two Wimbledons, two Olympic golds, won the Davis Cup, 4th on the all time earners list and you properly hung with three of the greatest of all time in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Hang ‘em up and enjoy your young family. Surely you must be bored of hotels and rehab.
Not as groundbreaking or as cultural defining as other films on the list buy another great insight into where drive and determination can get you and what it takes to be a No. 1 tennis player.