Few athletes are more polarizing than Kobe Bryant, whose storied career with the Los Angeles Lakers has been punctuated by controversy both on and off the court. Moreover, with injury again jeopardizing Kobe’s basketball future, the Showtime documentary “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” is certainly timely, if also largely whitewashed — a star-approved, produced and guided tour that sacrifices editorial perspective for up-close-and-personal access. Coming on the heels of docs devoted to Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard, the highlights should hold some interest to NBA fans, while shedding light on the notoriously guarded shooting guard only to the extent he’s comfortable allowing.
Produced and directed by Gotham Chopra (Deepak’s son), the film uses black-and-white footage to create a spare, almost clinical atmosphere around Bryant’s rehabilitation efforts, as he diligently seeks to ascertain if his body can bounce back after putting an ungodly amount of on-court mileage on it as a pro.
During direct-to-camera interviews, Bryant also talks candidly about how he’s not sure he’ll ever know the precise moment when it’s time to hang up his lucratively endorsed sneakers.
The best part of the docu, arguably, focuses on Bryant’s high-school and early NBA years after forgoing college to become a pro, showing how he initially felt like an outcast after being raised in Italy, where his father, Joe, was playing basketball. The project also details Bryant’s struggles upon entering the league, and he discusses driving around the UCLA campus as an 18-year-old pro, wondering what he was missing while sitting on the Lakers’ bench.
The rest, of course, is known by anyone who follows basketball, with Bryant becoming one of the NBA’s all-time greats, in a class with the “muses” he idolized, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
But the documentary skirts over thornier matters like the rape charge leveled against him (Bryant tears up discussing it), the acrimony that resulted in trading teammate Shaquille O’Neal or his family’s misgivings about his marriage to wife Vanessa at such an early age — they were 22 and 18, respectively — or their subsequent marital troubles. Compared with all that, shooting airballs in a playoff game as a rookie feels relatively mild.
Admittedly, there are too many storylines surrounding Bryant — who has spent more than half his life in the public eye — to do them all justice in an 82-minute film, especially one that provides ample evidence of his basketball skills, including his 81-point performance in 2006.
A thoughtful guy, Bryant is compelling as he discusses the enjoyment he still derives from playing the game, and how basketball has “helped me figure out who I am,” although frankly, given the distorting aspects of leading such a privileged existence and missing out on the carefree part of young-adulthood, the extent of his discovery is open to debate.
Yet if basketball really has enabled the Lakers star to see himself more clearly as a person, it’s equally apparent that “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” only reveals the narrow portion of Kobe that he’s willing to share.