There's one reason most people who watch More than a Game will watch it: Lebron James. The basketball player's rise from the lowest class neighborhoods of Akron, Ohio to high school sensation to NBA superstar is as well known as the story of any athlete in the United States. But Kristopher Belman's documentary about his pre-NBA days isn't just about a boy wonder with an awesome dunk--it's about a group of friends growing up under extraordinary circumstances and struggling with the demands of growing up fast.
James played with the same three friends--Dru Joyce, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee--from the fifth grade to his high school graduation. They called themselves the "Fab Four" and all went to the same high school so they could continue to play together. (Romeo Travis later made it the Fab Five.) The same coach that put the kids together, Coach Dru Joyce (the younger Dru's father), led them to the national championship their senior year. This film doesn't just have a superstar at its center, it has the kind of classic story that most documentarians only dream about. The team, made of local Akron boys, must take on teams drawn from the best players in entire states.
In his first film, Belman hasn't perfected his craft, but he doesn't let a great story go to waste. At times he loses the threads of the players. He gives each of them their due with at least one lengthy section devoted to each of them, but at the same time the themes he emphasizes in each of the subjects' lives tend to come out of nowhere and disappear. For example, we don't find out about an injury that's been plaguing a player for more than a year until the film decides to focus on that character.
This deficit might have subsided through better footage of the kids interacting with one another. But you get the feeling that Belman didn't get much more than cover footage and coach's speeches during the two years following the kids. In fairness, he started the film as a 10-minute project while he was still a student, so it might be too much to expect perfection.
Regardless, the film becomes a fascinating study not only of these young men, but of burgeoning celebrity. As James's ability becomes more and more apparent, a media circus swarms around him. Games are moved to bigger stadiums and still sell out. Once the "Lebron is great" stories get stale, the media starts digging up contrived, unfair allegations toward the kid and his status and an amateur.
As a non-basketball fan, I was unfamiliar with the story, but became involved in the boys' success in both life and on the court. The film is loaded with plenty of exciting game footage and montages, but deep down it's the personal stories that make it really touching.
Lionsgate's DVD presents the film in its 16x9 aspect ratio. The colors of the image are vibrant when taken from high-quality sources, and correctly balanced when that's the best you could hope for. Unfortunately, sometimes you can't hope for anything better than ghosting, interlaced footage, and cruddy low-quality visuals.
The achival 4x3 camcorder and TV footage was unconverted and cropped to widescreen, resulting in additional jaggies in parts. Also annoying (and this is a filmmaking choice, not an issue with the DVD), the crop-in cut out most of the score box during the games, making it aggravating when you're watching clips and want to know the status, but can only see the lease useful edge of the graphic.
More Than a Game sports a rich, lush orchestral score more akin to a big drama than a low-budget documentary. (It helps your music budget when the executive producer is also the composer.) The music sounds great in both the 5.1 and stereo mixes. Unfortunately, the rest of the audio is uneven in quality, despite the professional mixing job.
While the interview footage sounds fine, the source sound of other scenes often lacks presence and is occasionally hard to decipher. Luckily, there are optional English and Spanish subtitles to flip on when you can't tell what people say.
The disc contains roughly 24 minutes spread out over three bonus features, each of which is worth watching.. More Than a Film (9:37) tells the story of how Belman, an Akron native, explains how he became involved in the project and earned the trust of his subjects. Winning Ways: A Look Inside Sports Psychology (9:27) serves as a tribute to Coach Dru, as experts explain that it isn't the sports, but the adults teaching the sport, that build character. Behind the Music (4:30) features Executive Producer and Composer Harvey Mason Jr. talking about the origin of the film's soundtrack and orchestral score--which was a pricey endeavor for a documentary.
And if the Lionsgate trailers that played automatically when the DVD started weren't enough for you, you can play some off the menu!
More Than a Game isn't your average sports documentary. it makes an effort to tell the story with
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.