Friday 15 July 2022

MCENROE - Sheffield DocFest 2022

Taking in the highs and lows of his sporting career, this revealing documentary follows tennis superstar John McEnroe's meteoric rise as tennis's new "super-brat" superstar in the early 1980s, his long standing rivalry with Bjórn Borg and his habit of self sabotaging his career under the immense weight of the new-found celebrity status he was ill prepared for.

To tell the story of the bad boy of tennis and the long journey to where he is now as a respected pundit and commentator of the sport, director Barney Douglas employs a storytelling device with mixed results, having McEnroe travel from his childhood home of Douglaston, NY to the nearly empty streets of New York City, wordlessly encountering key figures from his past along the way. But having McEnroe come across Bille Jean King in a train station waiting room and not interacting with her, or hearing the words of his father spoken through the receiver of a payphone to which he cannot reply, suggests the film's central subject wants to keep his past at a distance. An outstretched arms length whilst an ace roars past him. This doesn't seem ring true in McEnroe's on camera interviews that feature prominently in the film, as he's remarkably open and self-reflective for someone with such an infamously tempestuous past.

Sure, Douglas's film - with input from McEnroe and family - is far from a celebration of his bad boy antics, focussing more on his sporting achievements (which in discussions of McEnroe are often forgotten about in favour of his celebrity status), but the film finds its weightiest moments when it looks at McEnroe's familial relationships - in particular the one he had with his father and manager, John Snr. A business relationship that took precedence over their personal one, the interviews McEnroe gives reveal a lot of restrained anger and resentment that's not entirely been unpacked yet.

Likewise his rivalry with Bjórn Borg. Now both elder statesmen of tennis, the doc makes great use of their memories of that time through the extensive archive material available, with thrilling footage from their many face-offs taking up a fair amount of screen time; although the inability to get them both in a room together - Borg, happily retired and at a lakeside retreat in Sweden, was restricted from travelling due to Covid - leaves the film missing a crucial component in telling the full story of their sporting battles.

Among the less successful aspects of the film, Douglas employs a flashy Tron/Escape from New York-style line grid motif, peppered throughout in the hope of placing McEnroe's histrionics in a modern context of his mind simply wanting put things in order. A flashy light display that's hard to see the relevance of, it's overkill for a film that already employs one device to varied success. Although not formally diagnosed with mild autism or Aspergers, Douglas's film makes clear that some tell-tell signs are there, and as John's wife Patty describes, are the path to understanding the real man. There's interviews with some of his children, looking back at the mania that came with their famous father and how it effected their lives. Notably not as guarded as their father, the late addition of these interviews are among the highlights of the film.

Biographical documentaries made with the active involvement of the key figure (and family) always run the risk of being self-aggrandising exercises in pompous self promotion. That's not to sat McEnroe's story isn't an interesting one to tell, but this doc (exec produced by McEnroe) suffers a little from hero-worshipping its subject. Perhaps that's to be expected from a documentary titled McEnroe, and it does hold his behaviour to account to some degree whilst respectfully not digging into some painful moments in his personal life, but there's the unavoidable feeling that there's more of McEnroe's story to tell. But for fans of McEnroe or for those wanting to find out some more about him, this documentary serves well as a potted history of the man, and the myth that comes with him.



McEnroe screened as part of this year's Sheffield DocFest, and is now on general release.

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