Tribeca Review: Spike Lee’s Ode-cumentary, Kobe Doin’ Work

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Whether by beefy forename, the purple-and-gold heraldry, or a playing style considered MJ 2.0 (or, 0.5 for disparagers), Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard and city-designated demigod Kobe Bryant is easy to distinguish, a 6’6” figure of front-page prominence and untold fascination. Over his wigwagging career, every credit Bryant has earned has been matched by a caveat or — over and over — a told-you-so takedown. As such, one’s feelings for the enigmatic “Black Mamba” are in play every passing minute of Spike Lee’s irresistible day-on-the-court documentary Kobe Doin’ Work, a 83-minute inside job which could be called All Camera-Eyez On Me.

Lee trains 30 lenses (scattered around the Staples Center) on a miked-up employee number 24 à la Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s lyrical single-game study of French soccer messiah. Besides being a mammoth MVP showcase for Bryant the aspirant, the film’s April 13th, 2008 showdown against the hated San Antonio Spurs will have a hand in crowning first place in the West (and its reward, home-court advantage through the Western Conference playoffs). Dramatic irony aside, the first-person observation absorbs thanks to novel camera angles, the urgent real-time pace, and Bryant’s spirited off-screen commentary: see Kobe run and dribble; hear Kobe josh and swear; gasp as Kobe passes for a score or shoots (Lee still-frames each second during these drives in black-and-white and offers multiple replays to highlight the hit-or-miss tension); listen as Kobe pays respect to the opposition (i.e. injured Spurs’ slasher Manu Ginobli) and exchanges Serbian, Italian, and Spanish prods with his ESL teammates. “I didn’t realize I talked that damn much,” confesses the off-screen Bryant at one juncture. Indeed, it’s Kobevision through and through, punctuated with a free-flow, jazz-inflected score.

In his booing review, The LA Times’ esteemed Scott Feinberg suggests that Lee should have abracadabra-ed his way into Bryant’s no-entry private life (particularly barred after the hoopster’s infamous 2003 case), but he misses the more modest — if commercial — aim of this ESPN production, one stated in it’s very title. Even in sportswriter Rick Reilly’s recent piece on Bryant’s 49-mile commute to work (he lives in Newport Beach), few home details were surrendered. It’s more relevant to view the film as spending time with an articulate, virtuosic, yet ultimately inscrutable artist in the thrall of his métier, sharing — as if beside you — expert knowledge of each of his strokes and set-ups in addition to his competitive mindset (even if the comments often feel a bit streamlined). Indeed, Lee’s near-clinical focus on Bryant’s hawk-like awareness simulates both the run-and-gun game as it presents itself to the in-his-prime player as well as his post-game practice of dissecting both his opponents and his own troupe via tape.

To be blunt, Kobe Doin’ Work will appeal mostly to the obsessed, as the casual who-wins concern is eschewed for the in-depth how-so. There has been a public snafu between Bryant and Lee over who ultimately had creative sway over the project. Suffice it to say, this version reflects well on Bryant as a teammate and a leader — one scene even features him strategizing with coach Phil Jackson out of sight. His effusive tone (he recorded the commentary after scoring 61 points against Lee’s beloved Knicks at the mecca of sports, Madison Square Garden) may strike some as having the authenticity quotient of chinoiserie, but he manages to keep things light, harping like a kid on the game’s intricacies and backyard “fun” factor, and, thanks to his eloquence, generally strikes you as a team-first talent — a phrase that no one would have dared to mouth 2 years ago. In other words, he composes himself more as an ambassador than an asshole. Despite lapses here and there, Kobe Doin’ Work is a simple, yet enjoyable magnification of a world-class athlete and his nonpareil physical and mental skills.

One last note: a fellow viewer opined that the film felt like “a DVD commentary for a Nike ad.” Had Mars Blackmon returned after a decade-plus hiatus, this time behind the camera? Perhaps there is a touch too much product spotlight, but it’s a moot point; it would be the equivalent of issuing a complaint about Siemens’ omniscience in the aforementioned Zidane. Advertising is, fortunately and unfortunately, a subsumed part of modern-day sports. ESPN premieres the documentary on May 16 and releases it on DVD three days later.