In our new column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Conor Bateman looks at Adam Yauch’s basketball documentary Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot (2008).
Date Watched: 25th September, 2014
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 43
Since 1994, sports documentaries have lived in the shadow of Steve James’ stunning and moving Hoop Dreams.1 Over an eight year period, that film followed two high school students in Illinois with aspirations of making it to the NBA and, rather than focus on basketball per se, ends up being about expectations and compelling intimate portraits of the two boys.2 For a film like Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, which also places its focus on high school students who aim to be NBA superstars, comparisons come naturally. Where James’ film moves towards a broader statement about life, the late Adam Yauch (who was perhaps best known as MCA of the Beastie Boys) pares back the scope and clearly places the focus on the game itself – whilst the talking head interviews provide emotional stakes, we spend a large part of the film actually watching the basketball game on show.
That game was the inaugural Elite 24 Hoops Classic, played at the famed Rucker Park in Harlem, which saw 24 of the top high school prospects in America play for exposure as much as a game of basketball. Yauch uses the rise of internet journalism in sports as a recurring point of narrative and, though at times it is structurally clumsy, it makes salient points about the loss of ‘professionalism’ through high school scouts and their ranking systems, as well as the way in which the online hype machine has detrimental effects on the players in terms of pressure and inflating expectations.
As expected from Yauch, the music in the film is one of the highlights, an expertly chosen collection of songs that capture place (Run DMC plays when a player is driving in Compton, Jay-Z in NYC et al) and mood.3 One of the more innovative elements of the film is the way in which Yauch uses music and image to play off of existing sports documentary tropes. Where many documentaries of the same nature, but centred on professional players, use television broadcasts of earlier games as a form of dramatic montage, Yauch uses the pixellated YouTube rips or handheld camera footage from a player’s family instead. In doing so, he uses all that is available to him to recreate the myth of athletic development from existing documentary forms but makes the audience fully aware of their high school status through the distinctly amateurish footage. When these images are coupled with a professionally curated soundtrack, the juxtaposition is even more stark. This isn’t to say the footage undermines the narrative beats, rather the opposite – the intimacy of the footage adds to both the development of players as characters but also to the idea of a love of sports at a young age.
The production and release of Gunnin’ predates ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, which has arguably changed the sports documentary form – conveying a vast array of styles and narratives, working within contrained and rambling runtimes to ultimately highlight the way in which audiences connect with sport.4 Gunnin’, though, wouldn’t necessarily fit under the 30 for 30 label (and not just because it doesn’t look at a major sporting event in retrospect) – it’s a shaggy dog of a movie, not highly polished and shot with a reasonably personal style. The game footage itself is filled with fish eye lens shots and lacks the clarity and pacing of an actual broadcast, instead of professional commentators we get a man on the mic who provides jabs at the players and gives them nicknames, which then are humourously slammed onto the ‘player cards’ that Yauch uses to introduce the eight subjects.
It’s worth noting that, as someone who isn’t a huge basketball fan, there’s a layer to the film I probably wasn’t able to engage with. Many of the players documented have gone on to have successful careers in the NBA, Kevin Love in particular.5 Yauch also seems to have consciously selected players from different backgrounds and cities to create contrast both in the obvious living circumstances and backstory but also to the basketball culture of the area. This has given the narrative more emotional depth but the structure of the film tends to hamper full engagement, placing these self-contained short sequences focused on one player at a time and then having the game itself in a block at the end tends to result in uneven pacing. That said, these eight men are all allowed to becomes more than merely a name on a ranked list.
Gunnin’ also had the honour of being the very first film on Yauch’s Oscilloscope Labs label, a smaller film distributor/production company/music label that has brought us the likes of Wendy & Lucy, Dear Zachary, Shut Up and Play The Hits and the recent Teenage. Their deal with Fandor, a superb streaming service focused on independent and world cinema, has made it easier for audiences to access films like Gunnin’. Part of the nature of this column, in finding underseen films, is also looking at access and the question of whether limited access is at the heart of the low viewing number. In this case, it probably has more to do with sports documentaries being a packed market to enter as it is, though there’s definitely an element to be attributed to it being at the start of Oscilloscope, as opposed to way in which they skillfully handle independent films today. Hypothetical distribution circumstances aside, Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot is a somewhat refreshing approach to the basketball documentary, less as a result of its narrative than its play with form.