The Last Dance (2020)

A coup-de-maître of documentary filmmaking capturing with tonal heterogeneity, cinematic transcendentalism, & journalistic breadth the behind-the-scenes of the once-in-a-century’s dynasty of Michael Jordan & the ’90’s Chicago Bulls. 9.4/10.

Plot Synopsis: The Last Dance is a 2020 American sports documentary miniseries focusing on the 1997–98 Chicago Bulls. The series features film from a crew that had an all-access pass to the Bulls during the National Basketball Association season

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Review

Michael ‘Air’ Jordan

The Face Of Basketball, Multi-Billionaire, Icon Of Sneaker Culture, Hollywood-Cameo, One Of The Greatest Athletes – & Mysterious

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

Michael Jordan – the face of basketball, multi-billionaire, icon of sneaker culture, hollywood-cameo, and one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. Everyone knows of his legend and mythic resumé, or at the very least: his shoes and prestigious number ’23’. The landscape of tribulation he faced as a ’90’s Chicago Bull was one of the roughest and most well-documented of NBA history – from the bad-boy Pistons to Bird/Magic to GM Jerry Krause to Batman’s Robin Scottie Pippen to wildcard Dennis Rodman to a bevy of teammates who looked more like teachers/electricians than professional athletes sometimes. For all the pomp, frills, celebration, merchandise, & endless G.O.A.T. monikers heaved upon his name for becoming a 6x-Champion/5x-MVP/Gold-Medalist/ROTY/DPOTY/2x-3peater regardless, M.J. is one of the most ~mysterious/cryptic figures in centuries of athletics – with barely a tweet, novel, life story, or candid interview to sit down and flesh out the man behind the trophies. That is, until now. ESPN and its award-winning 30-for-30 documentarians set out on the herculean quest to cinematize and memorialize such a larger-than-life figure for the first real time – and the result is positively glorious. A coup-de-maître of documentary filmmaking capturing with tonal heterogeneity, cinematic transcendentalism, & journalistic breadth the behind-the-scenes of the once-in-a-century’s dynasty of Michael Jordan & the ’90’s Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance is one of the most gripping, diverse, electrifying, and comprehensive sports docs ever made. Basketball fans have been waiting a lifetime for this.

The Documentary Structure

A Blend Of Archive Footage & Modern Interview That Chronicles Their Lives & Careers Through Lens Of The ’97-98 Season

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

The documentary structure of The Last Dance is phenomenal. Blending archival footage with modern-day interviews, the series chronicles the lives and careers of multiple basketball legends and, foremost, Michael Jordan – through the lens of the 1997-98 Season. A 5x champion dynasty trying to pull off the unthinkable: a 2x-3peat, late-90’s Bulls faced a whirlwind of headaches and controversy going into the season. The front office promise by sleazy GM Jerry Krause of a rebuild era and dismantle of the team’s core no matter what the record or accolades were during ’98 gives apocalyptic, palpable importance/stakes – and a rally-point to this aptly-named final ‘dance’ early-on for immediate viewer-hooking. Each fleeting moment, hand-shake, shoe-choice, ovation, and arena moment means something as the team tries to do the unthinkable – we’re taken back in time and space by a masterclass of documentarian exposition to elucidate the importance of the major players’ journeys to get to this level. The exegesis is brought to life in the purest of cinematic intrigue with stylistic edge ~unheard of in a documentary: as sleek, captivating, & innovative as the Air Jordan One (1984), achieved principally through soundtrack, visual style, themes, & tonal diversity.

The Soundtrack & Visual Style

A Sensory-Assault Of Crunching Violin Tremolos, Epic Powerchord Synths, & Cinematic Visuals – The Anti-Documentary

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

The soundtrack is galvanizing. From its opening credits sequence, our senses are assaulted by crunching violin tremolos and cello notes for an epic and cinematic blockbuster-feel that instills a sense of acoustic viscerality. These sequences by composer Thomas Caffey (The Carter Effect, The Council) pave way into a meld of cascading pads and soaring orchestral passages in the emotional moments to boom-bap ’90’s rap in perfect situational highlights to the pulse-thumping 808’s and powerchord synths of the legendary Chicago Bulls introduction: The Alan Pearson Project’s ‘Sirius.’ The immense tonal diversity auricularly gives an excitement factor dramatically-above its comparatively-boring and somnambulistic documentary genre-kin – a series so bingeable, you’d often think it was a high-budget Netflix Original. The visual style mimics TLD’s otic cues by mixing fresh & dynamic cinematography from its opening look-out shot into the Caribbean turquoises of MJ’s beachhouse – with a disciplined visual atmosphere and crisply-cut/edited transitions between modern interviews & archival footage bringing tons of behind-the-scenes footage never-before-seen by-public.

‘Republicans Buy Sneakers, Too’

A Mix Of Weighty Intellectual Themes & Phenomenal Diversity Of Tonicism

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

The themes and diversity of The Last Dance set it far above most sports documentaries, and especially: basketball docs, of the modern era. Weighty intellectual themes of family, greed, sin, the two-sided sword of fame, legacy, revenge, pressure-to-perform, art vs. artist, politics, race, social-justice, capitalism, competitiveness, sabotage, and transcendentalist corporatism are viewed prismatically through the lens of the Bulls and MJ by 30-for-30’s filmmaker-finesse. Do the ends justify the means? Should we separate art from artist? Do celebrities owe the world a utilization-of-platform for good? When does being at the top become enough? There is just as much entertainment value, however, as there is philosophical conundrums like this; there’s humour, unparalleled basketball thrills by quick-cut editing and highlight-reel-on-acid rap-infused motifs, solemnity, heartbreak, retrospection, and everything dramaticized in-between. Everything from the dynasty’s roots to family and coming-of-age tribulations of each of these names stitched into the annals of NBA history are expositioned: who were the soft-spoken and under-appreciated/paid Pippen, war-torn immigrant Kukoc, fatherless role-player Kerr, idiosyncrasy-personified Dennis Rodman, and Native American-obsessed Phil Jackson as people? The documentary answers each of these with resounding journalistic breadth and comprehensive skill, but none is painted as majestically as its star of the show: Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

A Portrait Of MJ As Never-Before-Seen

A Masterclass of Real Journalism Painting With Breathtaking Depth & Poise Who MJ Was As A Person; Not Perfect By Any Means

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

‘Do you have a gambling problem?’ ‘No. I have a competition problem.’ The series’ biggest triumph by far though is its breathtaking portrait of the biggest athlete of All-Time: Michael Jordan. This is cinematic journalism at its finest. The Last Dance has managed to capture the best parts of what made M.J. so groundbreaking as a sports legend – the serial killer-instinct, clutch gene, intensity-unrivaled, craftsmanship, suave marketable charm/demeanor that gentrified the entire sneaker industry into a cultural & fashion phenomenon, win-at-all-cost mentality, refreshing breviloquence, and hyper-competitiveness to not only be the best, but crush everyone around him so they know they lost. The Emmy-worthy achievement of TLD, however, is its courageous venture into the morally-gray imperfections of M.J. it feels were almost swept under-the-rug or non-publicized to present us the good parts of him, while ignorant to the bad. Things like his infamous ‘Republicans Buy Sneakers, Too’ comment putting greed and self-interest above the good of his own race by refusing to endorse a black Senator running in his home state of N.C., ‘Jordan Rules’ bullying and threatening his own teammates on a daily basis, complicity in high-stakes money schemes painting a gambling-addiction never-before-seen in such public athletes, and disregard for The White House forgoing traditional visits to go gamble with drug lords paint a *very* different vision of Mike than what is on your wallpaper or Wheaties box. Half of this footage and knowledge comes from a team of filmmakers the Bulls organization permitted to follow them throughout the ’97-’98 final season, and I was downright shocked to hear of half these bombshells even basketball fans like myself had not or only heard slight-of over my lifetime.

A Canvas Of Superstar Cameo’s

Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Common, Oprah, Kobe Bryant (R.I.P.) & Everyone Else From Chicago

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

TLD is a masterpiece of art-vs-artist exposition and analyzes its tricky interplay in the light of sports figures we see as gods, but are just as mortal/flawed (if not more so) than we are. One can only imagine the outrage half these experiences would have caused in today’s cancel culture social-media age, where the public’s propensity to quick judgment and appetite for rise-and-fall narratives might’ve changed the way we look at Mike on a foundational basis. It’s not all gotcha/hard-ball journalism more breaking than M.J.’s shaky-White Sox run, though: the series also works in poignance and balance to its character portrait, elaborating on the softer sides of love and camraderie he enjoyed with people like his beloved father and teammates – once they passed his impossible standards of perfection for the complete character portrait of Michael Jordan, once-and-for-all. Cameo’s in The Last Dance are of A-list Chi-town and basketball fame. From Pippen to Rodman to Kukoc and the rest of the Bulls dynasty recounting their historic run’s behind-the-scenes to NBA legends and M.J.-victims like the Bad Boy Pistons, Magic, Bird, Barkley, & Stockton to late Kobe Bryant (R.I.P. Mamba) in one of his final interviews to notorious journalists like Michael Wilbon (Washington Post) & J.A. Adande (Chicago-Sun Times) to Dwayne Wade, Melo, CP3, Justin Timberlake, Common, Oprah, and President Of The United States: Barack Obama, TLD’s interviewees are a veritable Walk-Of-Fame. The star-power adds just another element of entertainment value and dazzling gleam to the already-electric canvas far beyond that of any doc I’ve ever witnessed.

Flaws

One: The ~Disorientative Time-Jumps

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

Flaws in The Last Dance are pretty much limited to one thing: its time-jump structure. The series balances two concurrent arcs following M.J. and his Bulls across each of their two three-peats – jumping back and forth. This does allow for a comparison of the similarities and contrastable differences of the two mini-eras of the dynasty’s reign through juxtaposition, but is a bit ~disorientative in trying to piece together the overall, bird’s eye, coherent canvas of what happened when. Besides that, I do slightly wish the series expositioned a few more pieces of the roster outside of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, and Jackson – but, of course, that would be an impossible task with that many people on the roster and a waning public interest for ~most outside the Big 4 (and mostly: MJ.) Although not technically a normal ‘documentary’ profiling the late ’90’s Bulls in that regard, it still qualifies – and is all the more electrifyingly-entertaining because of it, playing to its strengths and the patriarch we all came to see with a masterstroke parable of basketball, ego’s, and high-stakes gambles around ’90’s Chicago.

Conclusion

The Greatest Of All-Time

A Character-Study & Massvely-Entertaining Capture Of The Magic Of The ’90’s Chicago Bulls & A Complex Patriarch: Michael Jordan

Photograph Courtesy Of: ESPN Films

The Last Dance emphatically inscribes what most basketball fans knew: Micheal Jordan is the greatest player to ever play the game. He might be the greatest athlete to ever play a team sport: the ultimate work ethic and high-achiever at his craft & alpha-male of alpha-males in athletics. For years, there has been little-to-no exposition of this god of sports’ story – besides a cartoon-cameo, space-jamming trip to mid-1990’s ACME. Now, there is.. and it’s everything fans could’ve wanted. TLD presents as elegant character piece and psychological study in parts, but moonlights as a massively-entertaining/get-up-and-cheer classical TV series in others – a final product that elevates itself above other documentaries like M.J. elevated in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest’s infamous Free-Throw Line moment. Its score is visceral and auricularly-galvanizing, cinematography crisp, & cameo-list superstar-heavy for the near-perfect trip down basketball-lane: perhaps the most exciting era, dynasty, & player. A coup-de-maître of documentary filmmaking capturing with tonal heterogeneity, cinematic transcendentalism, & journalistic breadth the behind-the-scenes of the once-in-a-century’s dynasty of Michael Jordan & the ’90’s Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance is one of the most gripping, diverse, thoroughly-watchable, and comprehensive sports docs ever. Long Live 23.

Official CLC Score: 9.4/10