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It might not be hyperbole to suggest that Hoop Dreams may be the most impactful documentary of the last quarter century. Which is to say that it helped bring new life into a genre which was not fully being explored. To be clear, filmmakers like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog had been discovering new and interesting stories for some time, but with Hoop Dreams, Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert helped bring a newfound vitality to documentaries, and did so in a way that captured mainstream appeal, with the willing help of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Hoop Dreams follows two young boys in Chicago as they attempt to find success in high school basketball which will hopefully find them securing a college scholarship and an NBA pro career. Filming them over the course of five years, the friends (Arthur Agee and William Gates) are both recruited to a high school on the other side of town, but the school had built a basketball program notable for the origins of NBA legend Isiah Thomas. Lots of hurdles are thrown the boys' individual and collective ways, whether it is the demands of maintaining grades and the costs of the school (for Agee) or the injuries which occasionally derail a promising career (for Gates). And that excludes the dangers of living in and around inner-city Chicago in the early 1990s.
So much has been said about Hoop Dreamsbefore, but I think a big takeaway (that I am not completely sure has been mentioned) is that perhaps quietly it is a modern retelling of "The Grapes of Wrath." I saw another film recently that tends to be more closely to those themes, but Hoop Dreams would tend to resonate more for a wider swath of viewers than, say, Overnighters would. Agee and Gates are in search of promise in a faraway land but have to return to their home each day, and the setting is far from cheery. Both families deal with poverty, Agee deals with a father who is sporadically available and when he is, is involved with drugs, Gates deals with an older brother who lives through him vicariously. One is far more distant that the other but the impacts are definitely felt.
The film also predated the business nature of athletics in academia and just how businesslike that things were even at that point. High school basketball in Chicago has scouts and coaches who are often cold and precise (disappointing on the latter as one would and should expect more from a mentor position). Agee and Gates' coach at St. Joseph Gene Pingatore coached Thomas and has coached others, and one gets the sense that he seems to know what the system is at this point and while he does not blatantly exploit it, he is not objecting to it by any means. Compare that to Agee's coach in the third act of the film (Luther Bedford), who knows what he has and how he needs to use them, and serves as a mentor in a stark contrast to Pingatore. He knows more about the process than Pingatore, or at least seems to be more realistic about it, and while his appearance is late in the film it may be just as impactful.
All this leads me to something that Bill Gibron said in his review of the film when Criterion first released it, and that yeah, ultimately it's about failure. The odds against a kid growing up to play in a sport that approximately 500 people are playing are already long, even more so when you consider the rise of international players in the NBA. And yet after Agee's left St. Joseph and is playing for a city high school, where his school goes on a Cinderella run, we still get swept up in the moment, wanting to see these kids do well. It only makes the disappointment make you a little more raw.
Presented in full frame 1.33:1 video, Criterion touts a high-definition digital restoration with Academy Film and UCLA Film & Television Archives, along with the Sundance Film Institute, and the results are superb. Having seen the film before on PBS through a crappy antenna connection, seeing the film go back to its original video elements (and be uncropped to boot) gives it a vitality that warrants anyone who saw the film before to see now. Colors are natural, the image is cleaner and the film's palette is reflected as faithfully as can be for this re-release, which may be worth double-dipping for alone. The filmmakers released a side by side comparison of the opening scenes which you can check out here.
The DTS-HD MA lossless 4.0 surround track is solid. The basketball scenes provide some better than expected immersion, along with the moments of the film's occasional haunting score. Dialogue is clear and consistent and there are little dropouts, but nothing major or distracting. Given the limitations from the production to begin with, that there is a lossless track, a decent lossless track, would seem to be a testimony to Criterion. Nevertheless, the film sounded fine and free of substantive complaint.
The extras are ported over from the previous release that Criterion put out and things remain impressive. Two commentaries follow, the first (with James, Marx and Gilbert) looks at the production side of things, while Agee and Gates handle the anecdotal. The clips from Siskel & Ebert are brought back and remain a great view, and the film's music video(!) and some trailers complete things.
Almost. There is a new extra in the mix, as "Life After Hoop Dreams" (39:40) looks at the lives of the families and the filmmakers' thoughts on them since the film was released. Much of the new interview footage was in 2004 and 2005, with some additional footage from 2014 put into the segment. Agee and Gates each discuss some of the things that happened to them since the film and some of those who have died since the film came out. It is a. excellent companion piece to the film. There are also additional/alternate scenes (7, 20:52), including some footage of the movie shot in the neighborhood on Isiah Thomas' mother (and Agee's script read of Zeke).
There is so much to admire about and take in when it comes to watching Hoop Dreams. Consider the recent adoration that Boyhood received for the task of filming over a dozen years. The filmmakers had half the time but caught so many moments on film and every story is fascinating in at least one regard. Technically, the transfer and retrospective pieces easily justify purchasing the film again. For those who have not seen the film, carve out the time to do so, and you will be rewarded with one of the more memorable film experiences.