Let me get this clear and out of the way: ESPN's "The Last Dance" is good. It's fun, exciting and propulsively crafted. It has an incredible backlog of footage and an even more impressive lineup of interviews, giving candid and entertaining quotes.
But "The Last Dance" is most certainly not a 10-hour documentary series about "The Last Dance."
Instead, it's a two-hour doc about the final season of the Chicago Bulls' MJ-led dynasty with eight hours of filler – really engaging and entertaining filler, but filler nonetheless. Context is important, but when the latest chapters wrapped up Sunday night after spending maybe 15 minutes of its two-hour runtime on the ostensible focus of the film, the side dishes are starting to feel more substantial than the main course.
Not that I can blame ESPN and series director Jason Hehir. When life grants you interviews with dozens upon dozens of the greatest icons in the history of basketball, how could you not ask about everything? When they give you as incredible answers as they do, how can you refrain from bending your documentary's focus to make sure there's room for them? And when all of the sports have been canceled and the network has nothing else to air or discuss (they've already busted out competitive Tetris and the Stupid Robot Fighting League championships) ESPN's not exactly looking to make trims to its remaining programming. The world is undoubtedly a better place with footage of Bulls GM Jerry Krause tripping over himself trying to dance with his championship team or former Bull Horace Grant gleefully calling the bad-boy Detroit Pistons "straight-up b*tches." I'm not sure "The Last Dance" is a better documentary for it, though.
Chapter three, the Dennis Rodman episode, gets it the worst of Sunday's two new installments. The beginning and end of the chapter digs into perhaps the most enigmatic and strange members of the championship Bulls, much less the entire sports world, a late arrival to the team's core after winning several championships over Chicago with the rival Detroit Pistons and spiraling out of control both on and off the court. Hehir paints "The Worm" sympathetically, filling in some of his troubled background and also putting his impressive work ethic and sports smarts on display; one interview montage shows how Rodman relentlessly studied rebounding angles in the gym, mapping how certain players' shots tended to spin off the hoop, an insider's look inside a skill often just attributed to height or toughness.
Of course, the money material comes in his later years, when he was infamously painting his hair into eye-catching patterns and, in the final Bulls season, going from a key cog getting the team through Scottie Pippen's absence to losing interest after getting relegated back to his third wheel position to ... taking a 48-hour (and then some) team-approved sabbatical to Las Vegas in the middle of the season to get mind wrong enough to get right. (Could you fathom today's sports commentariat handling that story? Skip Bayless would explode "Scanners"-style on camera.) Even the subdued material from the last dance – for example, behind-the-scenes footage of Rodman getting $20 from Craig Sager as part bribe, part help for inevitable fines – is entertaining and enlightening.
Unfortunately, "The Last Dance" disagrees. The Rodman part of the Rodman episode is maybe a third of the running time at most, and the story horrendously speeds through his transition from king of the paint and defense to king of the painted hair and deviants, literally spending a single sentence on the topic. He dated Madonna, she told him to be himself and so that was that. Any interest in trying to learn more about Dennis Rodman and unpacking one of the most misunderstood people in pop culture, or even just to entertain the audience with crazy anecdotes, is ditched. After all, we've got MJ's shot over Eloh to show for the 2,104,964th time.
Yes, a large chunk of the Rodman episode is instead spent on mythologizing Michael Jordan some more, traveling back to the late '80s and '90s to show Chicago's transition to a decent team with a thrilling young talent to a contending team with a transcendent star under new coach and human sweat-rag Doug Collins. The highlights are fun – and Cleveland Cavs player Ron Harper sulking, "F*ck that sh*t," about not covering MJ on his famous shot is never not going to be quality entertainment – but somewhere in the middle of a five-minute glowing montage of early MJ clips in the early '90s, it's easy to forget this is the Dennis Rodman episode of a doc series about the late '90s Bulls. It tries to tie it all together with the fact that Rodman was a part of the Pistons team that was the Bulls' first true roadblock, but it's loose and frayed rope haphazardly knotting the hour together at best.
The second part of Sunday's double feature fares better – not because it focuses more on its titular subject, but because it doesn't even bother. There's some clips of the growing tension in the final year, plus some entertaining footage of Jordan gloating about the Broncos beating the Packers in the Super Bowl and winning him some money. Phil Jackson takes the spotlight in this hour – and his brief segments make the most of their time with delightful archival photos of a grinning hipster Jackson looking more like an early "SNL" performer than an NBA player and stories of Jackson coaching in a Puerto Rican basketball league that sounded more like warfare. (Would watch a documentary about that too, ESPN, if you're needing more ideas for pandemic programming.) The episode talks briefly about the clearly still-touchy transition from Doug Collins and the MJ-led Bulls to Phil Jackson and the Triangle offense-led Bulls, getting some great crabby quotes from Jordan about the Triangle's issues – but still, these are all sidenotes.
Instead, the fourth chapter tells a classic sports story of heroes and villains, pitting the Chicago Bulls against the great villains of the NBA: the brutalizing bad boy bullies that were the Detroit Pistons. Sure, it's another distraction from the subject of the doc, but at least this distraction comes focused, regaling the audience with how the Bulls finally overcame their hated rivals and went on to their first Finals win – and, most infamously, how their hated rivals disgraced themselves by walking of the court without shaking hands in their first defeat. It's got everything you'd want from a good sports story: good guys you want to root for, bad guys you want to see lose and intense on-court action that puts you on the edge of your seat even when you already know the final score.
Plus, thanks to Hehir's incredible access, great footage and unguarded interviews, you get wonderful moments like Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan essentially going back and forth, still to this day, about the Pistons' infamous walk-off, Horace Grant's great send-off line and the celebration to end all celebration footage: Jerry Krause trying and failing to do the running man (to a degree that I'm not even sure I want to embarrass the running man by calling it the running man).
By the end, you'll wonder what you actually learned about the Bulls' final season or what any of that had to do with the doc's subject, but you also won't be against how you spent your past hour – which has been the first four episodes of "The Last Dance" in a nutshell. Hehir's interviews are incredibly entertaining, getting these guys off the usual guarded PR-mode and digging into their old grudges with bitter spite and glee as if they just got off the court yesterday. (Important: If you're watching the edited version on ESPN2, you're missing out on MJ laying profane waste to Isiah, the Triangle offense and more the way fans rarely get to hear athletes speak outside the locker room.) The access and footage, old and new, is a delight to watch, and watching a great team with a great player be great is, indeed, great. A shoutout also goes out to the series' low-key MVP: the driving-force score, which successfully adds to the tension and excitement while always just landing on the right side of overbearing.
"The Last Dance" is a well-crafted and engaging documentary. It's not actual sports, but it'll more than do until the actual sports get here. Make no mistake from all my griping: It is, without a doubt, good. But if there's anything I learned from the doc's diversions to the early Bulls years, it's that sometimes good is frustratingly not good enough. Time for "The Last Dance" to put its great pieces together into a real winner.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.