ESPN's Michael Jordan doc "The Last Dance" tips off with two solid chapters
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When all else fails, show Michael Jordan's clips.
That's typically ESPN's mantra across most of its popular existence. Slow news day? Michael Jordan clips. The dog days of summer when there's just midseason baseball? Michael Jordan clips. Alien invasion? That's right: Stupid Robot Fighting League highlights. Sorry, I meant Michael Jordan clips.
So, it makes all too much sense that, in the midst of a once-in-a-generation pandemic that's cancelled all sports, ESPN perfectly happens to have a 10-part miniseries about Michael Jordan and the final year of the Chicago Bulls dynasty on standby, originally planned for June but moved up to April and May. But considering our sports-starved state, what could've felt like a stale retreat of highlights and adulation now feels like a breath of fresh air – for the most part, at least.
Episode one sets the table for "The Last Dance," putting all of the pieces on the board for the Chicago Bulls 97-98 season. While the players – reserved second star Scottie Pippen, outlandish rebounding phenom Dennis Rodman and, of course, the all-time great Michael Jordan – are eyeing their second championship three-peat, the team's ownership (namely general manager Jerry Krause, very clearly set up from the start as the story's "villain," if there is to be one) starts looking ahead at the future and rebuilding. Sure, the team signs master strategist Phil Jackson back, but only for one final year – setting up the titular "Last Dance" and setting tensions to boil.
Those feelings begin to officially boil over in episode two: the Scottie Pippen chapter. While the team struggles to start the season, losing several of its early road games against foes like the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers – finally putting things in drive against the Los Angeles Clippers because it's the Clippers – one of its key cogs is fighting his own physical and mental battles as Pippen heals well into the regular season from a ruptured tendon in his ankle, all while publicly getting louder and louder about his poor contract. Despite being the second best player on the best team in the NBA, Pippen signed a longterm deal years earlier that paid him in the lower tier of the entire league – and by this final season, he'd had enough of it.
Here's where we find the meat of "The Last Dance," as the doc series has incredible access to just about any and every meaningful basketball figure in league's history, snagging interview with MJ, Pippen, Rodman, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, the late David Stern, Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr and even two U.S. presidents in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (hilariously credited as merely "former Chicago resident"). If somebody had a perspective on Jordan and the '90s Chicago Bulls, director and ESPN "30 for 30" regular Jason Hehir got to talk to them – and got them to talk to him, seemingly honestly without their guards entirely up. Jordan, for instance, still seems rankled by how Pippen dealt with his injury before the final season, choosing to wait until the season to get surgery and rest instead of using the offseason. He also takes on a question involving the phrase "the Chicago Bulls traveling cocaine circus" in good humor. Even though everyone is interviewed one-on-one, the unguarded openness and relaxed nature – even when airing grievances – makes the proceedings feel like a welcome reunion even when they're just standard talking heads in separate rooms.
Hehir accompanies his impressive lineup of subjects with an equally notable collection of behind-the-scenes footage from the team's final season and beyond. Clips bring you inside the locker room where you see Jackson's calm composed demeanor – and sometimes less calm frustration – as well as Jordan's constant pushing and prodding of his teammates (or, most likely, Jerry Krause). For a topic well-covered and with an ending most fans already know going in, there is a feeling of a curtain being lifted, and audiences getting invited to take a peak.
And, of course, for full measure, there are plenty of highlights of Jordan and the Bulls' majesty on the court over the years. And while there's not much new here, there's a reason why these clips get pulled out year after year: Watching MJ play basketball, even for someone who rooted against the Bulls his entire life, is a good show. The highlights and notable game replays are edited together with verve, energy and excitement, able to deliver that essentially sports movie feeling: tension, even when you know the final score. The team was a thrill to watch then and still now – especially in the current sports dessert we're currently crawling through. And especially when you add in the styles of the era, meaning oversized suits and NBA draft footage seemingly hosted in a cheap hotel conference hall with paper decor and folding tables.
It's easy to get drunk on reminiscing over these highlights – and "The Last Dance" threatens to get tipsy. Sure, the first two episodes are the introductory chapters, and they want to set up context for the later years and conflicts – such as telling Pippen's quiet origin story or diving into the Bulls' 1985-86 season and how ownership's handling of Jordan's injury, hoping to tank for a better draft pick, would lay the groundwork for his distrust a decade later. And sure, watching arguably the greatest of all time is a good way to quench one's thirst for sports.
Too often and for too long, however, the doc strays away from the meaty core of its story – the team's final year – to linger for large acts on staid Wikipedia background info or the same now-legendary Jordan stories and highlights that have little to add other than "Hey, did you know this Michael Jordan guy was pretty good?" Dives into Jordan's high school, college and early Bulls years are compelling enough, but after a while, the slick highlights can't distract from the fact that the audience hasn't heard much about the ostensible subject of this doc in a while. (Last year's exemplary doc "Apollo 11" dispensed with the requisite biography material without losing the path, using smart and emotional life-flashing-before-eyes montages so it could move forward and stay laser-focused on the good stuff.) There's a fascinating and focused story about egos clashing and the tricky cold-yet-emotional business of sports all too often fighting for screen time with yet another sports hagiography, just with a shinier VIP pass.
Hopefully this isn't an omen for the next eight chapters, and these distracted detours are just "The Last Dance" getting the introductions and supplemental information out of the way as opposed to evidence that there's more episodes than fresh material. When the doc focuses on its story – an honest and behind-the-scenes look at a great team on its last legs – it's something exciting and special. When it doesn't, it's still engaging. It just also becomes more MJ clips to fill the time.
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