The Last Dance: Documentary or an Overly-Reverent Tribute?

Doesn't matter, The Last Dance is filled with a healthy dose of spicy drama

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Despite retiring from sports two decades ago, Michael Jordan remains a compelling figure in pop culture. A tweet by Netflix revealed that 23.8 million households outside the US tuned in to The Last Dance in its first four weeks on the service. The latest documentary on the superstar, The Last Dance, places Jordan, in the spotlight once more though it’s debatable if he truly left with the Jordan brand still doing well.

Of course, one might also attribute it to a case of opportune timing with live sports event having been cancelled around the globe during the earlier months of the pandemic. But despite knowing how the story would end, I found myself completing the series in just two days. Focusing on the Chicago Bulls’ attempt at capturing their sixth NBA championship, The Last Dance is a polished documentary that not only provides courtside seats but also access to the locker room.

The editing is impeccable, with the episodes hopping between different periods in time to show how the Bulls star players Jordan (or MJ to his teammates), Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman evolved through the years. The series also does a good job at fleshing out or at least defining the most prominent traits of its stars, warts and all.

Portrayed as Robin to MJ’s Batman, Scottie Pippen is the gentle giant who was always soft-spoken, even when poking fun at the “antagonist” of the series, Jerry Krause. Through the series, I developed a sense of camaraderie with Pip, as he quietly but surely supported the team to win all those championships. I was especially incensed after finding out he was being criminally underpaid during the last few years of him playing with the Bulls before being traded off to the Houston Rockets.

Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in The Last Dance
The series also reveals some of the relationships MJ had with his contemporaries.

And I would sympathise with Dennis Rodman as he struggled with depression and a failed suicide attempt. His on-court brilliance almost always overshadowed by his shenanigans off the court, here Rodman is cast as an often-misunderstood individual who could never shake off the feeling of having no permanent home after being kicked out of his mother’s house when he was a teenager. In The Last Dance, MJ was the driving force that kept Rodman focused on the team’s goals every time he went off the rails, which prevented him from just imploding from his own personal demons.

The rest of the team do make appearances in the series, but mostly to provide some context to situations that the three stars are involved in. But what of the star of the show himself? With the few first few episodes focusing on Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson, I started to wonder if Jordan was not the focus of the show after all.

While it’s impossible to produce a fully objective biography of anyone, with Jordan’s company, Jump 23, being a co-producer on the show, naturally I wondered if Jordan had a heavy-handed influence on how the rest of the show would play out. What would he reveal once the curtain was pulled back?

Michael Jordan in the Last Dance is still culturally relevent
Michael Jordan was the force of nature behind the Bulls’ success in the 90’s but has continued to remain a cultural icon despite being off the court for two decades.

By the end of the series, we find out about MJ’s gambling “problem”, his short baseball career and his first retirement through all-too-short segments. They barely dive deep into these topics, but with MJ highly likely holding the strings behind the scenes, perhaps he doesn’t really want the audience dwelling on these parts of his life. The series does make an attempt to make him seem as human as any of us and not as a flawless hero who led the Bulls to multiple championships.

But these “flaws” only serve to rationalise how he managed to become so successful both on and off the court. While a lesser mortal might be deemed irredeemably petty should he be offended by any slight, real or otherwise, here MJ uses this as a means of motivation to fuel his drive to succeed and vindicate himself.

And that’s one thing we find out at the conclusion of the series – there’s always a villain in Michael Jordan’s head. In almost every episode, MJ would walk away with some grudge against another player, his teammate or even the Bulls’ General Manager at the time.

And with reports of his former teammates questioning the validity of some of Jordan’s claims in the show, it becomes clear that the series was never meant to be the gospel truth or even an in-depth biography of its main star. The Last Dance is pure sports entertainment. A showcase of how the most famous player in the sport’s history rose to succeed at all cost and how a legendary coach dealt brought together so many different personalities to make Chicago Bulls the most famous sporting franchise in the 90’s. And in this climate of uncertainty and distress, isn’t that more than enough?

  Verdict - 8/10

It's only Michael's side of the story, but The Last Dance is still as entertaining as he was back on court.

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