There's a real niche for the inspiring sports movie these days. Remember the Titans, Glory Road, The Express, Invincible and The Rookie have all come out in the past few years. These kinds of films have been very popular with audiences. Coaches show them to their teams for motivation. The genre, which I'm dubbing "USM" for Uplifting Sports Movie, is fictionalized accounts of real stories. Why not just cut to the chase and get to the uplifting sports documentary that will unleash the same kinds of emotions in a more truthful way? Enter the basketball documentary More Than a Game.
More Than a Game tells the story of a close-knit group of hoop loving kids who rise out of the obscurity of Akron, Ohio and onto the national stage. One of the boys you might have heard of: NBA superstar, Olympic gold medalist and ubiquitous product pitchman LeBron James. Along the way the boys learn valuable lessons. Ideas such as friendship, loyalty, dedication, responsibility, sacrifice, trust and perseverance are some of the things they grapple with as they grow up, on and off the court.
The group, dubbed the Fab Four, start playing youth league basketball together at the age of 13 in 1997. The early days consist of scrambling for money by holding car washes or selling duct tape to pay for tournaments. There is an abundance of grainy, shaky camera footage of some of these early games and it's interesting to watch the progression of James as a basketball player. When we first see him, he's a gangly teenage kid, but he blossoms into a man-child, unleashing hoop devastation on anything in his path. It's as electrifying to watch James on a basketball court when he was a kid as it is now.
James is one of More Than a Game's executive producers and that both hinders and bolsters its appeal. At times, the documentary feels like a shameless promotional tool made by various endorsement companies that pay James. It's too positive, too glossy and too saccharine (other USMs have the same issues when you think about it) considering the rough and tumble roots of a lot of the players profiled. In the end, More Than a Game lacks edge and attitude in its pursuit of being inspirational as it tells its story.
We live in a pervasive celebrity culture. Mass media bombards us with updates at every turn. Athletes are no different than film or music stars as they are marketers as much as they are athletes. For many of them, they are promoters of a brand, of a lifestyle, of an attitude. Their celebrity is all-consuming and there is no off-season for the big stars.
Some of my favorite moments from More Than a Game address the nature of celebrity and how James was forced to deal with it as a teenager. The reason he appears mature as an adult is because he had to be mature as a teen and the film exposes that side of James as he grows up.
The footage of James in More Than a Game shows a version of how he was as a teenager versus what little we see of him now. There's footage of James in practice, in locker rooms, goofing around on buses as he acts like the kid he is. The James of today may have a similar personality, but it's not something any of us will get to witness. James currently lives in a tightly controlled bubble world of friends, team personnel, hangers on and company lackeys who demand video of him being dunked on to preserve his reputation as a basketball deity.
The documentary addresses why James has to live in an insulated world and it exposes some of the darker edges of fame. After James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was given the moniker of "The Chosen One" everyone wanted a piece of him. The media swarmed his every move, adult strangers hurled insults at him in restaurants, girls were everywhere he turned. To escape the negativity, James moved into a cocoon allowing only those closest to him to enter. He's never left.
These darker aspects are few and far between in the documentary. More than not, it's footage of game highlights as the Fab Four (expanded to Fab Five with the addition of another teammate in high school) destroy team after team with canned announcers and a swelling orchestral score. None of it leaves a mark, none of it hits home emotionally.
More Than a Game is a perfect film for LeBron James fans as his magnetic personality is on display from a very young age. It's also good for people who want to see people talking about the positive elements of sports and basketball. It lacks substance though. Like other films in the Uplifting Sports Movie genre, it is entertaining but light as a feather and utterly forgettable until the next similar movie comes along.
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