Objectivity is dead, for better or for worse. Gone are the days in which documentaries still laboured under the notion, or illusion, of presenting merely the facts unadulterated. The good work began with radicle filmmakers like Michael Moore is being brought into completion by Netflix and its myriad of sensational non-fiction miniseries. From stunning expose takedowns the likes of Fyre and Don’t F**k with Cats to harrowing mysteries and investigations like Who Killed Malcolm X?. It’s almost demanded at this time that documentaries have a certain amount of passion and personality to them. In the face of growing uncertainty and grating absurdity, people crave for structure, clarity and most importantly a narrative. Weirdly enough, reality has filled the gaps where at times fiction has failed. If you’re looking for a true-to-life story that has all the makings of a high budget HBO drama, then I believe Netflix and ESPN’s The Last Dance is precisely what you’re looking for.
Some of you out there may have no prior knowledge to the American basketball scene, the institution of the NBA or the storied history behind the Chicago Bulls. Well, then you and I are in the same boat because I came into The Last Dance with no knowledge and zero expectations. The hallmark of a good documentary is an ability to generate genuine passion within its viewers, regardless of the individual’s background. This 10 episode documentary miniseries had me hooked from the start, mainly because of the series’ framing and narrative structure.
The Last Dance chronicles the final days of basketball legend Michael Jordan’s career as he leads his team, the Chicago Bulls. It is a tumultuous time in the seasoned athlete’s life as he watches everything he had come to know and love change. Under the shrewd management of Jerome Krause, the Chicago Bulls is rebuilt around Michael Jordan, making him the tip of the spear. It, unfortunately, means that a good number of Jordan’s teammates and friends have to be replaced with new members. Tensions rise and old rivalries flare up off and on the court as the Chicago Bulls push ever closer to the finish line of the 1997-1998 NBA season. Witness the end days of a dynasty with never before seen footage of Jordan, Scottie Pippens, Dennis Rodman and many more.
Let’s get one thing straight here, this documentary is about Michael Jordan. I mean sure there are episodes dedicated to detailing the life and times of other players of the Chicago Bulls but only ever as a setup for how it ultimately affected Jordan and his career. There were moments in the miniseries that were prolonged segments of hero worship for Jordan, which did take me out of it. There are only so many highlight reels of Jordan’s best moments set to the beat of raucous rap and R&B tracks one can endure before it begins to wear thin.
Minor flaws like this are offset by the fascinating behind-the-scenes footage capturing a candid and emotionally raw Michael Jordan. The man was a perfectionist and hard worker but he was also arrogant, petty and capricious in his younger years. The highlight reels, raw footage and modern-day interviews all worked to frame a unique combination of perspectives. How the fans saw the Chicago Bulls, the complicated truth behind closed doors and the perspectives of how the players saw themselves.
These multiple, and at times disparate, perspectives managed to find focus however thanks to strong direction and intelligent narrative structure by director Jason Hehir. The whole thing feels like you’re watching a season of Watchmen or Game of Thrones with the way each episode zeroes in on a particular figure before snapping back to the wider story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-1998 season. The first episode opens strong with Michael Jordan detailing his time in the NBA and his life in school, leading up to his final season before retirement. Then the second episode would pick up with Scottie Pippens and his life and how his departure affected the Bulls’ during that season. The earlier part of the episode gives us a richer context to a pivotal conflict that occurred mid-season.
The series continues with this format with subsequent episodes giving us fascinating insight into a particular player’s past before telling us how it’s all connected to Jordan’s final season. Hehir is incredibly deliberate in the way he drip-feeds information to the audience as he takes them on this odyssey through basketball royalty. Too often I see documentaries make one of two mistakes. They either focus mainly on the broad strokes, glossing over critical events and figures connected to their subject matter or they get lost in the weeds trying to cover every story without ever establishing an endgame. Hehir’s The Last Dance is a masterclass for future filmmakers and documentarians on the effective power of pacing.
As of this moment, Netflix is releasing two episodes per week and there are only four available now on the platform. The first two covered Jordan and Pippens, two of the most famous names in NBA history. The second pair released this week proved equally rivetting with their coverage of the Chicago Bulls’ Dennis Rodman and the team’s coach, Phil Jackson. Once again, Hehir proves himself a masterful storyteller. The story follows Pippen’s departure in the second episode with Rodman’s ascension in the third before taking a lighter and more inspirational note with Jackson in the fourth. One pervading figure, besides Jordan, that seems to unify the narrative is the team’s general manager, Jerome “Jerry” Krause. Krause was portrayed, for lack of a better word, as the villain of the documentary miniseries. In the series, he’s often characterized as a petty, greedy opportunist who frequently antagonized players and was the man responsible for Phil Jackson’s departure from the Chicago Bulls. Once and a while, you’ll have people like the Bulls’ centre player, Bill Wennington and the team owner Jerry Reinsdorf try to humanize the guy but I can’t help but see it as a limp lip-service to dead objectivity. Perhaps it’s still too early to say whether the miniseries took a reductionist stance on the legacy of Jerry Krause. There could be a clearer picture of the general manager revealed in future episodes. I wait with bated breath and high hopes.
Like Rodman’s thunderous defence, The Last Dance stole my attention and refused to ever relent. Longtime fans of the NBA will definitely get a kick out of seeing the recently uncovered and unfiltered footage of Jordan and crew. Newcomers and non-fans can expect an epic yet accessible story of basketball royalty and all the highs and lows that come with it. With its ability to frame a compelling narrative and intimate attention to detail, The Last Dance, much like its subject matter, is one for the books!
You can now watch the first four episodes of the documentary miniseries now on Netflix with the 5th and 6th coming out on the 4th of May.
The Last Dance (2020)
Like Rodman’s thunderous defence, The Last Dance stole my attention and refused to ever relent. With its ability to frame a compelling narrative and intimate attention to detail, The Last Dance, much like its subject matter, is one for the books!