Jim Carroll is one of those cultural figures that defy simple definitions. He's a respected and influential poet, a musician and performance artist. He's a former junkie, a hip intellectual insider and one of the key figures in the history of New York punk. Carroll is a genuine legend who continues to inspire artists young and old.
Carroll hit the literary scene in 1978 with the publication of his seminal autobiographical novel The Basketball Diaries. The book recounts events in his life from the age of twelve to sixteen (1962-66) and is adapted from the actual diary he kept at that time. The brutally honest book shows us Jim's transformation from studious scholar and accomplished basketball player through heroin addiction, petty crime and hustling and finally to self-realization and manhood.
I read The Basketball Diaries when I was eighteen along with Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, three books that had a profound effect on my development. I was therefore somewhat skeptical about Scott Kalvert's adaptation of the book to the big screen. Thankfully, The Basketball Diaries is as faithful to the book as any movie could ever be and though viewers unfamiliar with Jim's later development as an artist may feel lost there's enough here to keep even the uninitiated interested.
A pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio stands in for Jim in this movie and does a fantastic job. DiCaprio shows a range of feeling and expression that clearly demonstrates what a talented actor he is (even if he seems to be moving away from such challenging roles these days.) He gives us Jim the All-American kid, Jim the misguided youth, Jim the junkie and Jim the artist all with equal force and believability. Alongside DiCaprio stand Mark Wahlberg as Jim's best friend Mickey, Lorraine Bracco as Jim's mother and Ernie Hudson as Reggie each of which puts in a fine performance in their respective supporting roles.
The movie itself has a gritty and real look to it. There's very little traditional beauty in Jim's life and the film does an exemplary job of expressing this fact visually. The plot is unfocused, as was Jim's life at the time but the situations, dialogue and performances propel it forward at an even and engaging rate. The theme of the film (heroin is a bad thing) is hammered home firmly but without sounding preachy or overly self-congratulatory. In all, The Basketball Diaries is a meritorious translation of Carroll's book to the big screen and well worth the (relatively short) 120 minutes you'll spend watching it.
Though the film itself is very good the transfer to DVD is more than a little problematic. The Basketball Diaries is a dark film both in tone and in terms of the actual lighting. Much of the movie takes place either at night or in dimly lit interiors. Unfortunately this transfer suffers from a lack of mid range detail and exhibits a distinct lack of shadow detail. The whites flare up and the blacks sink much to deep making the viewing experience rather taxing on the eyes. The film elements themselves are in only average shape. There are many instances of scratching, dirt and holes though not to the point of distraction. I noticed at least a couple of instances where edge sharpening caused a moiré effect on some objects. Other times the images were so soft that the seemed almost out of focus.
The sound track here fares a bit better. The full-blown Dolby 5.1 mix contains a good deal of surround activity, a broad front sound stage and more than a few instances of solid LFE. The dialogue is crisp and clear throughout and the music sounds clean and well defined. There isn't much in the way of panning but considering the fact that this is a primarily dialogue driven film the experience was surprisingly immersive thanks in large part to the broad and deep dynamic range.
The primary extra on this release is a series of interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, James Madio, Patrick McGaw, Ernie Hudson, Lorraine Bracco, Bruno Kirby, director Scott Kalvert and producer Liz Heller. The short video segments are accessible through a text based menu screen and they show the actors reacting to Carroll's work, describing their approaches to it on film and recounting various anecdotes from the set. It's an interesting collection that really adds to the disc's value but the presentation leaves much to be desired. I would like to have been able to view all the clips at once without having to return to the menu and select the next item. Next up there's a small collection of TV spots for the film (no theatrical trailer,) a preview of other Palm Picture's DVD releases and an anti-drug TV spot. The drug spot was included to deflect some of the criticism that the movie received in the wake of the Columbine shootings but given the fact that the movie itself is a rather resounding advertisement against heroin addiction I have to question the spot's value.
The Basketball Diaries is a good film that suffers from a sub standard DVD transfer. The video and audio elements are watchable but flawed and the extras seem to have been something of an after thought. If you're a Carroll fan (or a DiCaprio fan for that matter) The Basketball Diaries is worth at least a rental.