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Serena: The Other Side of Greatness
With her win in Wimbledon over the weekend (as of this writing), Serena Williams has equaled Steffi Graf's record of 22 titles in the Open era (Margaret Court Smith holds the record with 24). She's won one Grand Slam title in 9 of the last 10 years, and held all four titles simultaneously in 2002-2003. Her and her sister Venus arrived into professional tennis as teenagers, and while Venus got the initial starpower, Serena has matched and exceeded it. In The Other Side of Greatness, a documentary filmed and aired on the Epix network, a film crew follows Serena, her family and staff around in 2015 as Serena attempted to win all 4 Slam titles in one here, the only thing she's yet to do in tennis.
To be a little clearer, The Other Side of Greatness doesn't completely start out in January of 2015, when Venus won the Australian Open. It does pick up the quest just before the French Open begins, so perhaps early May-ish somewhere in Paris. We see Serena, her coach, her hitting partner on the court and her agent share their thoughts on her and her quest. We also see Williams, battling through what looks to be bronchitis, as she wins the French. Later, she does karaoke Gloria Estefan with friends before the US Open starts, with the hopes of decompressing before the tournament. She smiles, she poses for pictures with fans, always making sure to say ‘You're Welcome' after each snap, even after a match where she is sore. She also shares her thoughts about various topics at various points in the film.
These topics go beyond the normal ones for a film like this. Sure, she talks about playing, and she talks about winning, losing, and everything in between. She also talks about playing her sister, which she does a couple of times in the film (of note, the Williams sisters remain undefeated in 14 Grand Slam doubles tournaments). She talks about growing up playing next to her sister, and some of the abuse they received, either collectively or individually. Of note, a 2001 tournament in California where Venus withdrew from a match with Serena due to injury resulted in abuse from fans, and hurt the girls as a result; Serena avoided the tournament until returning last year, an incident I had forgotten about. Serena addresses some of the criticism in the film, be they racist, sexist, what have you. She does not address them in wholly deep detail, they are things that don't concern her, she wants to win, and be the best of all time, and criticisms like that are nonsense. When she loses a final, or a tournament, she takes it hard. After losing in the US Open last year, she didn't speak to her coach and skipped the press conference, and eventually withdrew from tournaments for the year, citing a need to recharge. She seems to have done so effectively, as this year finds Serena in the Finals of all three tournaments this year, winning once, and she's been in seven of the last eight Grand Slam Finals.
Williams' lack of introspection does impact the film to a degree. The Other Side of Greatness does have some fun moments, or even a flirtation with candor, but generally, the film crew tends to blend into the background of Williams' team. There is a moment or two where a question is asked, but it is almost as if the documentary is not sure how to present its interview subject. There is little doubt why they like her, and little doubt why she wants to be the best, but the film focuses on that a little too much, and doesn't explain much as to the motivations for it. The film comes off as more of a PR piece than anything of substantive discussion which is a shame, because there was some promise here.The Disc:
The Other Side of Greatness is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen for all to see. It appears that the feature is a DVD-R ripped from the original source, so there is a moment or two of lagging or jumps, and the film does borrow from two decades of video and a broadcast source or two, and those reproductions are natural, with minimal edge enhancement. The brightness in the film tends to fluctuate, in part given the area being shot, and the colors are a little washed out. I would presume and hope the broadcast airings of this on Starz are better than I saw on disc.The Sound:
Dolby two-channel stereo for the film. A less than satisfactory surprise is how weak and inconsistent many of the interviews with Williams sound. You do have to crank them up more than you'd expect, annoying when the feature jumps into any music cues to highlight the action. But as far as a television-centric audio content goes, sounds, is, straightforward.Extras:
Nothing here, which was unsurprising.Final Thoughts:
There cannot be question that Serena Williams is among the greatest female athletes of all time. One can, and should, rattle off the numbers in terms of professional success and be left flabbergasted. The Other Side of Greatness shows us the work she puts in to realize this level of success, but does little else past that. If that was the objective of those telling the story then bully on them, but the film has the feeling of being a squandered opportunity. I would check this out on Epix if you have it, but in terms of more substantive material on Serena Williams, I would imagine there is better material out there worth checking out.