“The Last Dance” was the jolt of sports excitement needed during a pandemic

Photo Credit: Ken Levine (Allsport/Getty Images)

There aren’t many sports going on in the world right now, and ESPN was certainly aware of that when it moved up the release of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary on both the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, using unreleased behind-the-scenes footage of that championship season, as well as the rise of Michael Jordan, one who many consider to be the greatest basketball player of all-time.

I came into this documentary, which is directed by Jason Hehir, with the general knowledge about Jordan and the 90s Bulls, enough information to understand why they were both so great in their era, but also not enough info to know every single thing that was going on behind the scenes of all the titles.

This sweet spot is likely what made “The Last Dance,” for me, such a thoroughly enjoyable documentary from start to finish, despite some shortcomings that, generally, did not take away from my experience.

I’ll start with what is maybe the most obvious strength of the doc, which, to me, is the way the series splices together different types of footage, from game highlights to the behind-the-scenes looks to the interviews with the key members of the era.

You are probably thinking that these are just staples of a documentary, which is fair, but I appreciated how it was done here, constantly changing the pace and bringing more and more to the table in a way that built up a story while also remaining entertaining for a full 10 hours of runtime. This was also helped by the great idea of giving Jordan some recordings of other interviews to react to, which always elicited a response that was always memorable.

I think it was incredibly smart of Hehir to not focus too strictly on Jordan’s piece of the 97-98 Bulls, as some of my favorite moments were looks at Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, the “Bad Boys” era of the Detroit Pistons, and, of course, Scottie Pippen. These moments were fantastic little detours that build the entirety of that powerhouse lineup into more than just the one-man show that some may have felt it was.

And while we are talking about one-man shows, there is a whole lot here to really drive home how great Michael Jordan was. The game footage is great for that, of course, but I loved seeing Jordan in practice, or just hearing, both from him and his teammates, how brutal he was in order to get the most out of his team. This all comes to a peak at the end of the seventh episode, with a speech out of Jordan that nearly moved me to tears.

Maybe the best individual piece of this doc comes from the music, which hits so well, so often in hitting on that 90s era of sound, and just simply bringing out banger after banger to inflate the hype on Jordan’s highlights. This could have been a piece that was completely taken out of this documentary, but instead it completely adds to already great moments, and had me out of my seat hyped up for games over 20 years old on multiple occasions.

Here comes a potential hot take: I really liked the structure this documentary uses for how it sets up the timeline. What I will say is that there are moments where a time card should have been used to clarify, specifically early on. But, when the time cards were used consistently, I think it was a fantastic move to jump from the 97-98 season back throughout Jordan’s entire career interchangeably.

This is basically the documentary version of the timeline used in “Dunkirk,” where Christopher Nolan told the story of the Battle of Dunkirk by showing a set group of soldiers over a week’s time, a family’s journey in a boat over a day’s time, and a pilot’s battle to survive over an hour’s time. This felt like a stroke of genius to bring three stories together, and I think the same effect works here.

By showing two decades of material over the same amount of time as the one season — the titular “Last Dance” — that is the supposed focus of the doc allows for all the background to be spliced in, while at the same time giving the viewers something new. Doing this story chronologically sounds like a good idea in theory, but that would have led to the first five episodes all being background info, and nobody truly prefers that.

My only real complaints about the series are that I think it slightly oversold just how much ground it was breaking. There are some revelations, sure, and there are also some great pieces of previously unseen footage that are exciting to view, but on the whole, not all that much was really brought to the light to make this the “untold story,” as described by the poster.

I also think that might come at the cost of making this, and getting rights to that footage, in the first place. Jordan clearly had a big hand in making this, and his interviews are crucial to telling this story right, but this may have led to this documentary being much more pro-Jordan than it had to be. MJ is one of the best to ever do it, no question about it, but he was not a perfect person, and though that is lightly talked about for a few episodes, nothing is really dug deep on it as much as I would have hoped.

Despite that, “The Last Dance” is enormously entertaining, brilliantly crafted and is exactly what was needed in a time lacking any new sports content. The structure worked wonders in telling this source material, and I repeatedly appreciated the directions that Hehir took in telling this story.

I was worried that this was five or six episodes of content stretched out across 10 hours, but that proved not to be the case in the slightest. If anything, “The Last Dance” somehow left wanting more, and I think that would have held true whether or not COVID-19 ever existed. This is a fun, exciting, well-put-together ride that may not hit deep enough, but always hits consistently.


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