Spike Lee's new documentary, Kobe Doin' Work, is a great movie for sports fans and a passable one for the rest of us; when it was over, I was still ready for a new Spike Lee joint. Make no mistake, it does what it does very well--presumably as well as it could possibly be done. What may come into question is whether it needed to be done at all.
When I heard that Lee was doing a documentary on Kobe Bryant, my eyebrows raised; he's proven himself a skilled documentarian over the years, particularly in dealing with social issues (4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke), and he'd taken on a potentially controversial sports figure before, in the excellent Jim Brown: All American. Much to my surprise, Kobe Doin' Work doesn't even mention his notorious 2003 sexual assault case (later dropped by Colorado prosecutors). In fact, the film ends with a happy-go-lucky domestic scene, as Bryant, his wife, and their two daughters stroll playfully out to his Range Rover after the game and all but drive off into the sunset. There's also no mention of the troubled relationship between Bryant and coach Phil Jackson (Jackson wrote a book in 2004 in which he said Bryant was "uncoachable"); they seem to get along well enough, although there certainly doesn't seem to be a lot of communication between the pair. Based on what we do see, it looks like Bryant basically coaches himself.
So on one hand, it's a bit of a wax job. On the other, Lee isn't making some kind of a comprehensive documentary portrait. The conceit of the film is right there in the title--this is Kobe going to the office. It takes place over the course of one evening, during one important game (playing the Spurs in the Staples Center on April 13, 2008). Lee and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Pi, Iron Man), shadow Bryant as he suits up, stretches, watches game tape with Jackson, and gets ready for the game. Once it begins, they put 30 cameras on the game and put a wireless mic on Bryant, getting into his space and his head during an important play-off game.
Bryant does extemporaneous narration throughout--a device that's a little off-putting at first. It's something akin to watching a movie for the first time with the audio commentary on (and many of his comments have that same kind of tone--"This is funny watching because I didn't realize I talk all that damn much"). Once you get used to it, however, it does work, and he provides some real insight into his strategies for defense and pacing himself, as well as the moment-to-moment play of the game. Lee chimes in with questions every once in a while as well ("Kobe, why don't more teams use the triangle?") and it's good to hear from him; they also have some occasional amusing byplay of their own (early in the film, Bryant notes "I'm doing this voice-over after I just scored 61 points against Spike's beloved New York Knicks").
The body mic is also an ingenious device--and it is an unedited one, which is even more interesting. He throws around some four and twelve-letter words, whether reflexively after blowing a shot or while talking a little bit of trash on the line. He doesn't apologize for it on the voice-over track ("Foul language is just a thing in sports. It's just a part of sports"), and the use of it is refreshingly honest and unvarnished. In general, the film's use of sound is masterful; Lee does some experimenting in the design, occasionally isolating effects; in one key moment, he takes out every sound but the bouncing of the ball and the swish of the net, nicely augmented by Bruce Hornsby's charming score (it's a jazzy piano number reminiscent of Dave Grusin's music for The Firm).
The cutting is fast-paced without going overboard; it moves, yes, and the multi-camera set-up is fully exploited, but this isn't an MTV job. Lee stays with shots during slower moments and lingers on close-ups when necessary. Visually, the film is at its best when Spike stops worrying about the game and starts to play--he trots out some pretty inventive tricks. Slow motion is used at a couple of key moments but not abused; on a couple of other occasions, he shows a play or a trick move in a series of black and white stills rather than moving images (shades of his very first feature, She's Gotta Have It). He also spotlights a couple of crucial moments with a series of quick replays; I don't mean this in the style of a TV-sports "instant replay", but rather showing the sinking of a decisive basket from three different angles, rat-tat-tat, with the sound (say, Kobe saying "gotcha") repeating each time. It's a neat trick and, again, not overused.
The film's digital photography is rather hit-and-miss. Some shots are beautifully detailed, rich and intimate; others are marred by a slight blur and some digital sheen. Color saturation is good (the Laker golds and blues are nice and bright) and black levels are nice and full.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is terrific--crystal clear and beautifully immersive. The squeaks of the sneakers on the hard wood sound like they're in your living room, while the cheers of the crowd and other sounds of the stadium and nicely distributed throughout the soundstage. Bryan's commentary is sharp as a tack in the center channel, and Hornsby's music is well-modulated--present, but not overpowering. Overall, an outstanding mix.
Spanish and French subtitles are also included, as are two 2.0 options--a "game only experience" track without the Bryan commentary, and the slightly censored TV version of the film.
Viewers have the option of watching the film with a short Introduction by Spike Lee (0:49), in which he briefly explains how they made the film. The same shoot provides "Spike Lee on Kobe's Commentary" (3:18), with the director talking about the difficulty of scheduling the commentary recording with the busy ballplayer and doing the session with him. Two Deleted Scenes follow: "The Unseen Fourth Quarter" (9:21), which is frankly pretty dull, and the more interesting post-game "Press Conference" (2:53).
The evocative black-and-white stills are collected for the Photo Montage (4:30), though most of them pop up in the Music Video for Hornsby's "Levitate" (4:19). Finally, "E:60- Behind the Scenes" (2:15) is an altogether too-brief look at the making of the film, with Lee and Labitique plotting out the shoot and talking about their conception of the picture.
It's just plain rotten luck for Spike that the Lakers take such a decisive lead in the third quarter that Bryant basically sits out the fourth; it surely made sense for Jackson to let the bench play out the fourth, but it makes for an awfully anticlimactic movie (a fact that Lee seems to acknowledge--"We should have shot tonight's game!" he laughs). This does keep the movie short, though; he can compress the time that Bryant spends on the bench, which is presumably the reason that we only see the score during time-outs and quarter breaks. Or that might just be so it doesn't feel like we're just watching a game on TV. The only problem is, when Lee isn't playing with his photography and having fun with his effects, it feels like that's exactly what we're doing. It's a good game, and an expertly photographed and assembled one, but when it comes down to it, that's all it is. For some people, that's good enough. I found myself wishing Spike had found a few more devices that would keep his movie-nerd fans interested.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.